October 23, 2013
SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

Transformations are a recurrent theme in Mary Zimmerman’s distinguished career as playwright and director. As a writer, she brilliantly adapts stories, myths, and fables for the stage: her Odyssey at McCarter in 2000; Metamorphosis, based on Ovid’s tales, a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2002; The Secret in the Wings (2005), from an array of European fairy tales and Argonautika (2008), the story of Jason and the Argonauts, both also at McCarter. But even more striking than her clever literary transformations is her wildly creative visual magic in bringing these stories to life on the stage. 

The White Snake, based on a classic Chinese fable and currently playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a lavish, aesthetically stunning production, embodies that theme of transformation in every facet of its plot and production. Snakes, of course, among other rich symbolic associations, are known for their shape shifting and skin shedding. And certainly a defining characteristic of the theater art itself is its capacity for transformation, as it uses the tools of light, sound, film, props, set, costumes and make-up to transform actors into characters and creatures, and bare stages into multiple worlds.

From the outset, Ms. Zimmerman and her White Snake protagonist are bent on taking the art of transformation to new levels. Originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, The White Snake is the story, whose origins are more than a thousand years old, of a snake who studies the Tao, learns how to fly through the air and travel through the clouds, then how to change her shape into that of a beautiful young maiden. She then wishes to leave her mountain cave and visit the world below, where she meets and falls in love with a mortal man.

The story itself has changed shape many times over the years in numerous tellings and retellings — in oral recounting, in novels, plays, stories, opera, and film. In earlier versions the white snake woman is often depicted as villainous. In one version she and her serpent accomplice slaughter a would-be lover and devour his heart and liver. In most versions a religious figure becomes the antagonist representative of the status quo, exposing the disguised snake woman and imprisoning her under a stone pagoda.

In Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, and in most more recent versions of the tale, the White Snake, transformed into Madame White, is a sympathetic figure and the fable becomes a love story. White Snake marries a man named Xu Xian and they must battle the intolerance of a fierce Buddhist monk who is determined to expose Madame White and destroy this relationship between an immortal demon and a mortal man.

As she plots her visit, in the guise of a beautiful lady, to the world of mortals, White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) teams up with Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), a fiery, outspoken sidekick who provides moral and physical support throughout the proceedings.

Madame White and Greenie meet a young man, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), in the park. Madame White uses her supernatural powers to bring on a rain storm so that she and Xu Xian will share an umbrella. Soon afterwards they share their hearts. With Greenie as go-between and procurer of money, Madame White and Xu Xian are soon married and working together in their pharmacy shop.

Their lives are peaceful and happy for a while, and, with Madame White’s supernatural healing powers, the pharmacy thrives, until a visit from Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), the suspicious monk who has heard about a demon white snake missing from her cave in the mountains and about the astonishingly successful pharmacist, casts doubt in the mind of Xu Xian.

The rest of the story follows Fa Hai’s determined efforts to expose White Snake and break up her forbidden relationship with her husband, as Xu Xian and White Snake struggle to overcome his doubts and her deceptions to achieve a true, lasting, loving relationship.

In staging this tale of transformations and the transforming power of love, Ms. Zimmerman, her actors and her production team present a dazzlingly beautiful tour de force of imaginative performance and stagecraft. Dramatic tension here is a notch below that of Ms. Zimmerman’s earlier masterpieces. This story melds abundant narration with intriguing magic, vibrant characterizations, romantic intrigue, bits of humor and intense conflict, but it lacks the richness of the multiple adventures of Odysseus on his journey home and of Jason and his ill-fated quest. Nor can this fable, captivating though it is, match the variety and allure of Metamorphosis’s amazing, titillating Greek myths or the peculiarly dark and fascinating fairy tales of The Secret in the Wings.

The sheer beauty and ingeniousness of the staging, however, does carry the performance, and if the plot is not always riveting nor the resolution fully satisfying, the audience cannot help but enjoy the visual and auditory feast provided here.

Production elements, under the direction of Ms. Zimmerman, are so closely melded with each other and with the performances of the superb acting ensemble that it’s difficult to single out the artists’ individual contributions, but Ms. Zimmerman’s team of actors, musicians, and designers is thoroughly first-rate.

Starting with the snakes themselves — sometimes manipulated by actors in puppet fashion with two sticks, sometimes represented by a row of actors carrying parasols, sometimes appearing in the form of the two maidens themselves with long tails emerging from their clothes — the visual manifestations of the concrete and abstract elements of the story are striking.

Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set relies on billowing silky fabric and the audience’s imagination to create mountains, clouds, rivers; long strips of blue fabric descending from above to denote rain; a parasol carried by an actor for the moon; a single medicine cabinet with its numerous drawers and large jars on a shelf rising from the floor of the stage to represent the apothecary shop, opening up to become Madame White’s bed chamber; colorful, picturesque model boats pulled across the stage to create the dragon festival; multiple light, sound, film, and design elements to create an epic battle with White Snake and Green Snake calling on all their water spirits to flood the monastery and the mountain and engulf Fai Hai and all his cloud spirits; and a striking display of colorfully costumed actors carrying bright lanterns to celebrate the festival of lanterns.

And even more memorable and clever are the visual and musical/sound manifestations of abstract qualities — like doubt, depicted here by the indispensable Emily Sophia Knapp with her extra-long fingernail attachments attacking poor Xu Xian and drumming relentlessly on his head; or love, when Madame White and Xu Xian’s hands first touch while passing the umbrella and the moment resonates with sound, lighting effects and the excited trembling of the romantic pair; or soon afterwards when red rose petals fall from above, a huge red wedding ribbon descends and the bride and groom entwine themselves in the shimmering sash.

Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful traditional Chinese costumes, T.J. Gerckens richly varied, expressive and dramatic lighting design, Andre Pluess’ remarkable original music and sound design with Tessa Brinckman on flute, Ronnie Malley on strings/percussion and Michal Palzewicz on cello in the orchestra pit, Shawn Sagady’s intriguing projections — all contribute invaluably, vitally to the creation of this exotic world and the telling of this strange tale.

As part of the narration of this story, characters at times read from a 1936 book titled Secrets of the Chinese Drama. In traditional Chinese drama there is no scenery, so costumes, music, props and movement take on particular symbolic meaning. According to the book’s preface, “There is so much of imagination and so little reality. So many of the actions are symbolic and so few of the properties are real!” Among the many wonders displayed on the Matthews stage in this beautiful production of The White Snake, there is little wonder that the infinitely inventive Mary Zimmerman would find a fulfilling vehicle for her rich gifts and powers of transformation in this Chinese tale of transforming snakes and transformative love.


October 2, 2013
FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

Imagine waking up every morning with no memory of your past, your identity, or your current life. Each day is a new start and a struggle to discover who you are in relation to family and the surrounding world. Theatre Intime’s current production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers takes its audiences on a wild journey in search of memory and truth along with its protagonist Claire, a middle-aged woman suffering from a rare form of psychogenic amnesia.

The world of this play is beyond bizarre. It’s a world of funhouse mirrors. That’s the “fuddy meers,” in the gibberish delivered by one of the characters whose speech is impaired because of a stroke. Claire’s dysfunctional family, with its array of physical and psychological deformities, goes far beyond the Sycamore family of You Can’t Take It with You or the Brewsters of Arsenic and Old Lace into the realm of wacky insanity and whimsical absurdity. Despite the larger-than-life, unsettlingly dark comic tone of the play, however, there is an underlying seriousness and dignity in Claire’s brave quest. The zany excesses of Christopher Durang — Betty’s Summer Vacation, in particular — and the work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company also come to mind, though Fuddy Meers is less sharp in its dialogue, humor, and social satire than the best of Mr. Durang and Mr. Ludlam.

A capable, energetic Theatre Intime undergraduate ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Tyler Lawrence, displays spirit and versatility in tackling this acclaimed 1999 off-Broadway hit. The 11 scenes are fast-paced and entertaining, with abundant laughter, and a sympathetic, engaging central figure.

Fuddy Meers, presenting an adventure-filled day in the life of Claire (Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn), begins as she wakes up in the morning, a blank slate, all memory erased. Her ever-cheerful husband (David Cruikshank) greets her with a cup of coffee and a book containing everything he thinks she needs to know about herself, her surroundings, and her life.

Suddenly a mysterious, scary, limping man (Pat Rounds) in black ski mask emerges from under the bed. He claims to be Claire’s brother and insists on taking her away to protect her from her husband. Claire and the audience are equally confused. The limping man and Claire drive to the house of Claire’s mother Gertie (Julie Garrett), who speaks only in gibberish as a result of a recent stroke, though she thinks and acts with complete clarity.

Next to join the gathering at Gertie’s house is Millet (Steven Tran), a sociopathic criminal who wants to be a zookeeper. He is inseparable from his outspoken, foul-mouthed hand puppet. Soon afterwards the odd assemblage is completed when the pursuing husband Richard and their pot-smoking 17-year-old son Kenny (Matt Barouch) arrive, along with a peculiar, claustrophobic woman police officer, whom they kidnapped after she attempted to stop them en route.

Violence (by knife, pistol, shovel, hot bacon grease, sewing needle, hack saw), humor, and extremes of eccentricity abound, as Claire struggles to overcome her memory lapses and the deceptions and dysfunctions of the characters who surround her in her quest to discover the truth about her past and actual relationship to these people who attempt to control her life.

Ms. Ellis-Einhorn provides a solid focal point for the proceedings. A bit more energy and intensity in this character would help her, the only “normal” character, to capture the audience’s full attention amidst the competing crazies.

Mr. Rounds as the primary antagonist is first-rate and forceful in his volatile, psychopathic demeanor. Funny and frightening at the same time, disfigured in face and behavior, this character drives the plot and consistently commands the audience’s interest.

Mr. Cruikshank’s cheery, Mr. Self-Help-Manual husband is appropriately cloying and amusing in his character incongruities, while Mr. Barouch’s son-from-hell Kenny is on-target in characterization, humorous in his outrageous rudeness and ultimately valuable in his truth-telling.

Ms. Garrett’s high-powered grandmother skillfully handles the demands of extensive dialogue in gibberish and succeeds in communicating with dynamic force and even clarity with her daughter Claire, with the other characters in the play, and with the audience. Mr. Tran and Ms. Coke provide strong support in their sometimes disturbing, often surprising, and consistently amusing, madcap roles.

Mr. Lawrence has directed with understanding, focus, and appropriately swift pacing, though the opening night set changes could have benefited from greater speed and efficiency.

Seen through Claire’s eyes, Fuddy Meers, according to the playwright, is “a world of incomplete pictures and distorted realities.” Set design here by Wesley Cornwall with lighting by Marissa Applegate, original music by Sam Kaseta, sound design by Charlotte Sall, and costumes by Julie Aromi fulfills this goal with minimal unadorned representations of the locales of the play. The set is functional, though a bit more stylization, surrealism, other-worldliness might help to further embrace the mood of this play.

In his notes in the script Mr. Lindsay-Abaire calls this play ”a world of mirrors and memories … a world where mad fun and genuine danger are wrapped around each other.” This youthful Theatre Intime company brings Fuddy Meers to life with energy and talent and offers an evening of memorable madness and entertainment.


September 18, 2013
FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6.(Photo by Richard — Termine)

FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6. (Photo by Richard — Termine)

How do you make a play about mathematicians and a mathematical proof comprehensible and interesting to a general audience? Ask David Auburn the playwright and Emily Mann the director of McCarter Theatre’s exhilarating current production of Mr. Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer and Tony winner, Proof.

The “proof’ of the title refers most directly to an apparent groundbreaking proof of a mathematical theorem, and that proof is discovered near the end of the first of two acts. But the meaning of the title expands to the question of whether the young protagonist Catherine, inheritor of her father Robert’s genius as well as his mental instability, can prove that she, not her deceased father, actually devised and wrote that proof.

At the same time, Catherine is seeking proof of the affections of Hal, young math professor and protégé of her father; proof of her sister’s questionable intentions; and proof of her own ability to overcome her depression, doubts and fears, so she can move beyond her father’s death.

So, despite initial appearances, Proof, turns out to be more about human relationships than about mathematics, and the engrossing dialogue, even when mathematicians are talking about mathematics, is accessible and engaging.

This intellectual drama, seasoned with a rich dose of warm, entertaining humor, may provoke thought and discussion about frighteningly close connections between genius and insanity, and it may instigate further provocative commentary on the scarcity of women at the higher levels of mathematics. But the most important issues of this play, the ones that lay claim most dynamically to the audience’s attention and emotional engagement, focus on the 25-year-old Catherine — her relationship with her recently deceased father, her growing affection for Hal, and her bitter clashes with her successful, domineering, sister Claire.

Proof, originally at the Manhattan Theatre Club for five months in 2000, then on Broadway for more than two years, with Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman in the starring roles, before becoming a 2005 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, is most essentially the story of Catherine’s coming of age.

Played here with great sensitivity, fragility, and charm by Kristen Bush, Catherine battles with depression, deepened by the death of her father, whose caretaker she has been during his long period of mental instability. She becomes edgy, defensive, even paranoid, alternately angry, suspicious, distraught, then loving and hopeful. Her body language speaks volumes as she wraps herself in her father’s too-large sweater or folds herself up, hunched over in a large chair. Her face glows with love and sadness as she confronts and comforts her father. Her eyes sparkle with laughter and hope as she emerges from her cocoon in connecting with Hal. She bristles with bitter sarcasm in her rancorous quarrels with her sister. The dialogue is spot-on credible, and the characters are richly sympathetic, believable, and appealing.

The action of the play spans a period of about one week, starting from the night before the funeral of Catherine’s father (Michael Siberry), but in nine scenes the play skillfully interweaves the present-day narrative with episodes involving Catherine and her father from the past and from Catherine’s imagination. The play itself is artfully, carefully crafted to make the most of each secret that is revealed, each revelation and twist in the plot, and Ms. Mann’s direction perfectly complements the high-suspense plotting and the fascinating development of characters and relationships. The result is a moving, memorable human drama — funny, touching, and powerful in its impact, especially perhaps for mathematicians, but also for anyone who can reflect on a relationship with father, daughter, lover, or sibling.

The plot here does seem thin, but the suspense is genuine and gripping. Hal (Michael Braun), with dual motivations, encroaches on Catherine’s world. He hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that Robert left behind and also he is starting to fall in love with Catherine.

Catherine’s older sister Claire (Jessica Dickey) has flown in for the funeral from New York, where she works as a Wall Street currency analyst. A pragmatist and successful businesswoman, she is a striking contrast to her late father and sister. Claire wastes no time in announcing that she’s selling the house and proposing her plans for her troubled sister to move to New York and seek psychiatric help.

As the romance between Catherine and Hal develops, along with conflict between the two sisters, Catherine directs Hal to the notebook containing the historic, earth-shattering proof. The handwriting looks like Robert’s, but he had done no new creative work since his 20s, when the creative spark faded and the madness began to set in. Suspense rises, as the mystery deepens and, in a stunning act-one curtain line, Catherine claims that she wrote the brilliant, barrier-breaking proof.

Mr. Siberry is consistently convincing as the rumpled, white-haired University of Chicago genius mathematics professor. He is funny in his irascible impatience and eccentricity; endearing and sympathetic in his loss of contact with reality and his deeply loving relationship with his self-sacrificing mathematician daughter.

Mr. Braun, the source of many of the witty math jokes in the play, is credible, both as a young, earnest mathematician, with a winning humility and self-awareness, and also as a viable love interest for Catherine.

As the antagonist sister, interloper from another world, trying, it seems, to do the right thing, Ms. Dickey provides a strong voice of “normality” and a formidable obstacle for Catherine to battle as she strives to shape her own life.

Eugene Lee’s inspired set design combines realism with surrealism: a beautifully specific, large, realistic Chicago back porch in early fall is surrounded on the upstage wall by a huge blackboard full of advanced mathematical problems and equations. Thoroughly in-character costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and nuanced lighting by Stephen Strawbridge enhance the realistic effect and help to fully create the world of this play, while Mark Bennett’s creative sound design highlights the drama and supports the varied tone of the proceedings.

Ms. Mann, whose own father was a University of Chicago professor, has directed with loving care, attention to detail, and uncanny ability to highlight the most important moments in the relationships of these four characters and to bring out the rich humanity in this entertaining and emotionally satisfying tale of mathematicians, madness and love.


August 7, 2013
COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

In the midst of an increasingly heated argument over the question of the individual’s responsibility to reject the comfortable life and to try to make a difference for those who are less fortunate, Mandy confronts photojournalist Sarah and foreign correspondent James. “I wish you’d just let yourselves feel the joy. Y’know? Otherwise…what’s the point?”

The questions hang in the air and remain the central concern of Time Stands Still (2009), Donald Margulies’ engrossing examination of two contemporary couples struggling with the personal, marital and moral choices that will define their lives and relationships. Nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Time Stands Still is a serious, intelligent, fascinating drama, and this extraordinary Princeton Summer Theater company provides an engaging, thought-provoking evening — a theater experience that audiences want to talk about afterwards.

In the past two months the abundantly talented PST troupe has taken its audiences on an adventurous, brilliantly successful journey with four strikingly different shows, each posing its own significant intellectual and theatrical challenges.

From its opening with an exquisite production of the much loved, intimate musical She Loves Me (1963), to a heart-warming presentation of Beth Henley’s hilarious, southern gothic masterpiece Crimes of the Heart (1978), to the wildly farcical, Monty Python-esque murder mystery spoof The 39 Steps (2005) and now the disquieting, contemporary drama Time Stands Still — this youthful, impressively professional contingent of college undergraduates and recent graduates from Princeton University and elsewhere has offered one of the finest seasons in the 45-year history of Princeton Summer Theater.

With only four characters and just one setting, in the Brooklyn apartment of the two protagonists, Time Stands Still is deceptively simple — in some ways the most challenging production of the summer for PST. Though it seems like a small world here, Mr. Margulies, with seven scenes in two acts spanning a period of almost a year, draws his characters in rich, three-dimensional detail. The dialogue is realistic, intellectual, engaging and entertaining.  With the two main characters, James and Sarah, in their late 30s or early 40s, approaching the most difficult stage of their relationship and the unresolvable existential questions of middle age, and the two supporting characters, 25-year-old Mandy and 55-year-old Richard, with no less thorny character dilemmas and relationship issues to grapple with, the requisite stretches here are huge for these actors in their early 20s.

The play begins as James (Brad Wilson) is bringing Sarah (Maeve Brady) home to their New York apartment from the overseas hospital where she has been recuperating from injuries sustained in the war zone on a photography assignment in Iraq. Sarah, strong and determined, though visibly suffering with scars, leg brace and crutches, and James, energetically solicitous and concerned, are obviously together (married by act two) and in love, though frequently in conflict.

Their future, individually and together, hangs in the balance, as the issues proliferate. James is still suffering from the traumas of reporting the Iraq war. He feels guilty because he came home early, leaving Sarah in Iraq. James is eager for a more conventional, less public life—marriage, family, stability. He is working on an article, not about devastating current events, but about horror movies. “I just want to be comfortable,” he tells Sarah later in the play. “Does that make me a bad person?”

Sarah, however, remains unwilling to give up her career. She is committed to her larger sense of purpose. Determined and uncompromising, she is eager to return to work, to the front lines, despite her severe injuries.  Does she need James and the security, comfort and “normalcy” of life in Brooklyn more than she needs the excitement and the moral commitment of her life on the barricades?

These issues and others are brought to the fore and further developed with a visit from their friend Richard (Evan Thompson), a 55-year-old photo editor, and his 25-year-old girl friend Mandy (Sarah Paton). Mandy, from a different generation and seemingly from a different world, exposes the conflict most starkly. Though she admires and remains in awe of Sarah, and they even bond in their mutual respect and understanding, Mandy provides a completely antithetical perspective, as she is ready to give up her job to pursue a conventional marriage, family and life style with her much older spouse.

Ms. Brady in the central role is strong, focused and convincing in her physical fragility, as she contends with her injuries, and in her mental steadfastness. This character is clearly set apart, heroic in her life choices and her ability to stay true to those choices, and Ms. Brady communicates that commitment with powerful presence and delivery. Mr. Wilson’s James effectively displays a wider range of thoughts and feelings as he deals with his trauma, his desire for a more conventional life, his love for Sarah and her adamant dedication to her career.

As Richard, Mr. Thompson plays with assurance the role of authoritative photo editor, older friend and partner to his much younger girlfriend/fiancée. Ms. Paton’s Mandy, though the most accessible role for this quartet in terms of age (25), is the most demanding characterization in terms of dialogue and tone.  Mandy’s youth, inexperience, provincialism and orthodox attitudes clash sharply with the mindset of Sarah in particular and at times of the other characters too. Her girlish attire, the balloons she brings to the ailing Sarah and her patterns of speech and her demeanor all bespeak another generation with more traditional priorities than those of the other three characters.  And yet — and here is where Mr. Margulies’ dialogue may have created an impossibly inconsistent tone and character — Mandy’s character demands to be taken seriously. Sarah may be the praiseworthy heroine of the play, but Mandy’s assertion of the values of marriage, family, children and conventionality resonates strongly and clearly, in a manner that none of the others, not even the stalwart Sarah can ignore or deny.

These four skillful, experienced performers have all distinguished themselves in two or more major roles in previous productions this summer, and here, under the wise, capable direction of Emma Watt, they explore these complex characters and the troubling terrain of this play with energy and focused seriousness of purpose.  These characters have proven their abilities to effect dazzling theatrical magic and convincing character stretches, but here some credibility and chemistry are missing at times as these 20-something actors grapple with their characters’ big questions of middle age or when actors of the same age are working out an age gap of 30 years in their characters’ relationship. Mr. Margulies’ occasionally elusive tone and the plethora of issues here — political, moral, marital, personal, career — further complicates the challenge.

But my quibbles arise partly from the fact that PST’s extraordinary season may have raised unrealistic expectations. Mr. Margulies’ play is rich, intellectually stimulating and entertaining — among his best, dealing with some of the same issues as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (2000) and the Pulitzer finalists Collected Stories (1996) and Sight Unseen (1991). And Ms. Watt’s production features four superb performers and first-rate production values manifested in Jeffrey Van Velsor’s detailed, thoroughly realistic Brooklyn apartment set, Alex Mannix’s adroit lighting and Annika Bennett’s spot-on costumes.

In discussing his aims in Time Stands Still, Mr. Margulies described his desire “to capture a sense of the way we live now, to dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with.” He accomplished that ambitious goal and more, and Princeton Summer Theater brings it all to life in this dynamic culmination to their exciting 2013 season.

July 24, 2013
ROMANCE, INTRIGUE AND ABSURDITY: Evan Thompson as the dashing Richard Hannay and Holly Linneman, who plays all three of Hannay’s love interests, strike a pose in rehearsal for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The 39 Steps,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 28.

ROMANCE, INTRIGUE AND ABSURDITY: Evan Thompson as the dashing Richard Hannay and Holly Linneman, who plays all three of Hannay’s love interests, strike a pose in rehearsal for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The 39 Steps,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 28.

In the opening moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s ceaselessly entertaining The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, the dashing hero, sits alone in his London apartment. It’s 1935, between the Wars. He is sipping his scotch and soda and suffering the pangs of ennui.

“Picked up an evening paper, put it back. Full of elections and wars and rumors of wars. And I thought — who the bloody hell cares frankly? What does it all matter? What happens to anyone? What happens to me? No-one’d miss me ….” He then decides, “Find something to do, you bloody fool! Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless. Something — I know! A visit to the theater! That should do the trick!” And his action-packed adventures commence.

True to its iconic source material, which it both spoofs and celebrates, The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1915 detective novel by John Buchan, a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie, and an original concept by Simon Corbel and Nobby Dimon, is a murder mystery thriller. There’s the suave protagonist; exotic, beautiful, and mysterious heroines; unremitting intrigue; a desperate struggle, with the fate of England at stake; narrow escapes; train chases; airplane crashes; treacherous bridges; a dastardly Nazi villain with a missing little finger; and much more.

But this 2005 British hit, still running in the West End, brought to the U.S. in 2008 for a Roundabout Theater production then two years on Broadway, goes far beyond its source material. With minimal set and only four actors playing all — I lost count at 130 — parts here, The 39 Steps becomes a tour de force that revels in the magic of theater and the amazing, inventive, ridiculously implausible act of creating something out of only the performers’ creative imagination and the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

“Mindless and trivial”? “Utterly pointless,” as Hannay says before heading off to the theater? Yes, indeed, particularly in this rambunctious, outrageous, and whimsical mode — but hard to beat for sheer fun and theatrical virtuosity.

This parody of Hitchcock’s famous movie, with additional allusions to Stranger on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, will resonate with film buffs, but no prior film knowledge is necessary to enjoy this show, which is much more about theatricality than film. In its rapturous embracing of the challenges of staging the unstageable, in its wildly energetic and ridiculously serious commitment to creating the plentiful characters and the murder mystery/spy thriller world of the play, the four actors and their top-flight production team deliver a delightfully engaging and thoroughly entertaining evening.

Jeff Kuperman, busily involved in New York theater, dance, and film over the past year since his Princeton University graduation, has directed and choreographed The 39 Steps with fabulous timing and an unerring comic sense. The melodrama, the high camp, the breakneck pace, the coordination of props, actors, sound, lights, costume changes, and the unremitting physical and verbal humor could easily misfire in the hands of less skilled, committed and talented performers, and production crew. The professional Princeton Summer Theater team is highly focused and carefully, skillfully rehearsed — even more impressive here than in their two fine productions (the intimate musical comedy She Loves Me and the comedic southern gothic Crimes of the Heart) earlier this summer.

After Hannay’s brief opening scene, the plot wastes no time in picking up speed. At the theater Hannay (Evan Thompson) meets a beautiful, mysterious woman (Holly Linneman), who turns out to be a foreign spy. When, in the middle of the night, she lands in his lap with a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand, Hannay quickly realizes he must find the ruthless perpetrators, a clandestine organization called “the 39 Steps.” He also must escape both the authorities who suspect him for murder and the villains who want him dead, and solve this international espionage mystery before vital security information leaves England. The chase is on!

As the debonair hero, Mr. Thompson adopts the perfect balance of camp and commitment, of ironic detachment, and deadly serious involvement in his heroic and romantic quest. He plays almost every spy thriller cliché you can imagine with appropriate panache that is larger than life but never overdone. The age stretch is daunting — Mr. Thompson is a couple of decades away from the age 40ish world weariness of the character as originally conceived, but he blends the Hitchcock and Monty Python styles brilliantly to provide a solid core to the production.

Ms. Linneman, with an eccentric array of wigs and accents, plays all three leading ladies — all stunningly beautiful, all intricately involved in the fate of Hannay, and all straight out of the conventions of the film noir spy thriller tradition. As ill-fated foreign spy, then innocent, amorous, doe-eyed country lass, then savvy woman of the world, she is a worthy counterpart to Hannay. She keeps up her defenses, sparring verbally and physically with Hannay until the end. Ms. Linneman is on target, thoroughly in character — all three characters — while playing the high drama and romance just broadly enough to suit the prevailing tone of spoof and hijinks.

And the other 130 plus roles fall into the capable hands — and legs and faces and every other conceivable body part and vocal distortion and costume piece — of Brad Wilson and Pat Rounds, listed in the program as simply Clowns 1 and 2. These astonishingly versatile performers, who act, sing, dance, and perform all sorts of physical and vocal acrobatics throughout the evening, do not need named-in-the-program leading-character roles in order to steal the show.

Perhaps the greatest delight of watching The 39 Steps comes in observing the imagination and virtuosity of these zany, chameleon-like actors as they instantaneously transform themselves and their settings into whatever this plot-laden script demands. My favorite hilarious transformations include Mr. Wilson’s jealous old crofter husband; all of his outrageous, bewigged, heavily accented gender crosses — the shocked maid, the domineering wife of the villain and the Scottish innkeeper’s wife; Mr. Rounds’ dastardly, pinky-less spy master and heavy-handed Scottish innkeeper; the two clowns’ dazzling simultaneous depictions of train passengers, porter, paperboy, conductor, and policeman; and, of course — quite a character stretch even for these theater magicians, the roles of puddles in the road on the dangerous journey through the Scottish moors. Individually, in tandem and in interactions with the two protagonists, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Rounds provide the audience with an abundance of laughs and surprises.

The production elements here are almost as remarkable as the fine performances. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s minimal set — ladders, chairs, wheeling doors and windows — affords unlimited possibilities and opportunities for this company to display its ingenuity and boundless imagination. (What they do with windows must be seen to be believed.) Laura Hildebrand’s technical direction and Alex Mannix’s lighting design, along with sound design by Mr. Kuperman, all cohere to create this wild romp through a caricatured world of murder mystery and romance. The comic timing—actors’ delivery of lines, gesture, interactions, and physical humor, sound, lighting, props and set movements — is consistently on point.

In the same Monty Python-esque, larger-than-life mode, Annika Bennett and Maeve Brady’s richly inventive, colorful costuming — featuring a wild collection of wigs, hats, and numerous other accessories, and Gordon Jacoby’s dialect coaching skillfully both create and mock the world of The 39 Steps.

Don’t look for interesting character psychology, depth, or development here. Despite the distinguished source material, don’t look for a plausible or even consistently comprehensible plot to keep you on the edge of your seat. But “a visit to the theater” certainly helped Richard Hannay to overcome his ennui, and for sheer entertainment, hilarity, and a joyful tribute to the wonders of theatricality, PST’s production of The 39 Steps is bound to please.


July 10, 2013
SISTERHOOD SOLIDARITY: Maeve Brady, Holly Linneman, and Sarah Paton (clockwise from the top) play the three MaGrath sisters, struggling to get through “a really bad day” in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Crimes of the Heart,” running through July 14 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

SISTERHOOD SOLIDARITY: Maeve Brady, Holly Linneman, and Sarah Paton (clockwise from the top) play the three MaGrath sisters, struggling to get through “a really bad day” in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Crimes of the Heart,” running through July 14 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

“But, Babe, you’ve just got to talk to someone about all this,” Meg urges her younger sister in Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979). “You just do …. Because it’s a human need. To talk about our lives. It’s an important human need.”

That human need to communicate with others, to talk about our lives, to share our stories, to relive with others the joys and sorrows of our human existence — is not only essential to our humanity. It’s the primary impulse for creating theater, from its roots in ancient Greece to the present, and a pervasive central theme of this tragic comedy.

Crimes of the Heart is the story of one “really bad day” in the lives of the three MaGrath sisters in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the fall of 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille, and there is enough tragic material here — many different “crimes of the heart,” loves lost and loves abandoned, Granddaddy suffering a stroke, beloved horse struck by lightning, mental disorders, a suicide and other subsequent suicide attempts, domestic abuse, and murder attempts — to overload a classic tragedy. But this play is very funny, in its particularly, darkly humorous way. This masterpiece, which may have exhausted most of Ms. Henley’s best ideas and wildest family stories, is one of the best loved, most frequently produced plays of the last half of the 20th century,

The reunion and bonding of the three sisters, ages 30, 27, and 24, seems to make life bearable, even hopeful, even funny, despite all its distressing calamities. The soul of this play lies somewhere in that powerful sisterhood, that strength of family, that shared past, that opportunity to sit down together and “talk about our lives” with listeners who understand and, in spite of everything, love unconditionally.

The talented, energetic, young PST company is up to the challenges of Crimes of the Heart, making this show a definite crowd-pleaser for enthusiastic summer audiences. Under the direction of Daniel Rattner, last summer’s PST artistic director and recent Princeton University graduate, the cast interacts as a finely tuned ensemble.

As the play opens, it’s oldest sister Lenny MaGrath’s 30th birthday, and she’s trying hard, all by herself, to celebrate with a single candle that won’t exactly stand up on top of the cookie she just bought. Her ovary is deformed, her love life is empty, her grandfather is dying, and her beloved horse has just been struck by lightning. Both parents are long gone. Father left town and mother committed a murder-suicide in the basement, along with the family cat. Lenny’s two sisters have further disgraced the family — Meg with her loose behavior before she headed west to seek fame as a singer in Hollywood, and Babe (who was having an affair with a 15-year-old) for shooting her husband because she “didn’t like his looks.”

The plot may sound more tragic than comedic, but the tone remains light and the dark humor is rich, as Meg, career in shambles, and Babe, out of jail on bail pending trial, return home and the three sisters confront their daunting predicaments.

The three sisters, played by Maeve Brady, Sarah Paton, and Holly Linneman, come to life in lovingly detailed, idiosyncratic, three-dimensional portrayals. The three supporting characters, meddling cousin Chick (Annika Bennett), Meg’s old boyfriend Doc (Evan Thompson), and the eager young lawyer (Pat Rounds), are less fully developed but definitely striking and larger-than-life in their eccentric, memorable characterizations.

The pace is swift, and the drama and humor are absorbing. You might not have ever met anyone quite like these characters, but it is impossible not to care about their odd, troubled lives, and peculiar relationships.

This PST production company is on a roll with this second of four productions in a six-week period. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s unit set presenting Granddaddy’s kitchen, Alex Mannix’s realistic lighting, and Ms. Bennett’s 1970s costumes are all realistic and on target in creating the world of lower middle class, small-town Mississippi in 1974.

In addition to talent, abundant and diverse experience in both academic and professional theater, intelligence and imagination, this company benefits greatly from their close, continuing working relationships and also from the fact that all the ages of the characters in this play are within ten years of the actors playing the roles. The performances, outlandish as some of these characters and their actions might be, are thoroughly credible. The PST actors understand these characters. Their portrayals exude sympathetic appreciation, and the chemistry is powerful among the sisters and between each of them and the other characters in the play — exciting and gratifying to watch.

Originally produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, Crimes of the Heart opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, then moved to Broadway where it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play. In 1986 Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek starred in a popular movie version with screenplay by Ms. Henley. Now this first-rate Princeton Summer Theater revival happily demonstrates, with moving warmth and humor, that the passions of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and the resulting “crimes of the heart,” as well as the need to share the stories of our lives, have a timeless relevance, interest, and appeal.

June 26, 2013
SCENTS AND SENTIMENTS: Smooth-talker Steven Kodaly (Kenny Francoeur) romances a smiling Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), as perfume shop employees Sipos (Tommy Prast) and Arpad (Brad Wilson) look on in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of the 1963 romantic musical “She Loves Me,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 30.

SCENTS AND SENTIMENTS: Smooth-talker Steven Kodaly (Kenny Francoeur) romances a smiling Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), as perfume shop employees Sipos (Tommy Prast) and Arpad (Brad Wilson) look on in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of the 1963 romantic musical “She Loves Me,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 30.

“A romantic atmosphere” pervades the Hamilton Murray Theater, as Princeton Summer Theater (PST) embarks on its new season with a rollicking, endearing production of She Loves Me, a 1963 Broadway hit musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joe Masteroff (book).

The atmosphere at PST is also full of energy and excitement, as this community of vibrant, committed theater students and young professionals tackles a challenging classic of the musical theater repertoire. It may be a small musical by blockbuster Broadway standards, overshadowed in many ways by Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick’s A Fiddler on the Roof, which opened one year later; and it may seem old fashioned in both its 1930s Budapest setting and its traditional, character-driven romantic fare. But She Loves Me, in the capable hands of Sash Bischoff, 2009 Princeton University graduate and currently New York-based director, and her talented 13-member ensemble, takes full advantage of the smallness, which translates into an engaging intimacy and focus, and its old fashioned-ness, which proves to be charming and timeless.

With an impressive contingent of recent graduates and undergraduates from Princeton, NYU, and elsewhere, Princeton Summer Theater is winning over sell-out audiences with this luminous and endearing, thoroughly professional opening production. The outlook for its 45th season could hardly be brighter, as its stimulating, eclectic season continues in July with Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, followed by Donald Margulies Time Stands Still in August.

Set in a perfume shop, She Loves Me is a retelling of Miklos Laszlo’s Hungarian play, Parfumerie, first staged in 1937. The fact that this story has inspired at least three popular movies — The Shop Around the Corner in 1940 with James Stewart, In the Good Old Summertime in 1947 with Judy Garland, and You’ve Got Mail in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, in addition to She Loves Me, is ample evidence of the timeless appeal of this simple story of two perfume clerks who squabble constantly, but, unknown to each other, are romantic pen pals deeply in love with their anonymous correspondents.

She Loves Me presents a variety of stories and perspectives on love and romance amongst the seven major characters. In every role, every musical number, and every major scene these characters and their complex human relationships come to vibrant life through the high-quality acting and commitment to character, first-rate musical accompaniment, superb vocal talent throughout the cast, and the finely tuned pacing, direction, and choreography.

The seven-piece band, under the unerring baton of Emily Whitaker, occupies an orchestra pit in the background across the upstage area, and creates an unobtrusive but powerful presence in delivering this melodious music, as well as supporting the plot and character development here.

The redoubtable, ingenious Jeffrey Van Velsor (set designer) and Laura Hildebrand (technical director) lead the production team and create with flair and resourcefulness the world of Maraczek’s perfumerie and its inhabitants. The scenes shift smoothly and rapidly as the three-part walls turn to transform the locale from inside to outside the shop, then to various other interior and exterior Budapest locations. Alex Mannix’s striking and apt lighting and Annika Bennett’s expressive, colorful period costumes further transport the audience into the world of She Loves Me.

As the central quarrelsome duo, Woody Buck as Georg and Holly Linneman as Amalia are strong from start to finish, with confident, appealing voices, credible, compelling characterizations, and a lively chemistry. They win over the audience from the start, and anticipation rises as the mystery of the anonymous romantic epistles gradually unfolds.

From their romantic reflections over each other’s letters (“Three Letters,” “I Don’t Know His Name”) to eager anticipation at the thought of their first meeting (“Tonight at Eight,” “Will He Like Me?”) to their disappointments, at the end of the first of two acts, when the meeting doesn’t quite come off (“Dear Friend”) — Mr. Buck and Ms. Linneman successfully establish this show’s heartwarming central core. A break-through in their romantic travails, precipitated by a gift of “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and the realization of deep feelings on both sides (“She Loves Me”) come to life in two wonderfully rich and memorable theatrical moments here.

In contrast with this fairy tale romance, Amalia’s outspoken friend and confidante, Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), has her own romantic dilemmas. Ms. Michaels uses an attention-grabbing stage presence and her strong, confident vocal talents to advantage in creating this sympathetic, entertaining character who learns her own lessons in dealing with the vicissitudes of romance with a two-timing (or is it more than two?) paramour.

As Kodaly, Ilona’s urbane, deceiving lover, Kenny Francoeur maintains his suave, charming façade to the end. He crowns his exhortations of true love in the face of all evidence to the contrary in his first-rate song-and-dance numbers, “Ilona” near the end of the first act and his smilingly caustic farewell, “Grand Knowing You,” near the end of the second act.

Meanwhile, in another one of several subplots, Arpad (Brad Wilson), the bicycle-riding, eager young errand boy aspiring to become a clerk, provides perspective and some light comic background as he observes the proceedings, learns some life lessons, and develops in maturity and character as the plot unwinds.

Tommy Prast’s Sipos, another perfume clerk, effectively lends the jaded vantage point of age and experience to the proceedings, while Evan Thompson’s Mr. Maraczek, the aging owner of the shop, contributes additional darker shadings to the tone of She Loves Me with his nostalgic reminiscences of his youth, in the tuneful “Days Gone By,” and his despair and suicide attempt over his wife’s infidelity.

In addition to these intriguing stories, the importance of the ensemble, mostly nameless and in the background though they be, should not be underestimated. Chris Beard, Maeve Brady, Victoria Gruenberg, Emma Paton, Pat Rounds, and Nikki Yarnell, in a variety of roles from fashionable perfume shoppers to restaurant patrons (with a highly dramatic and athletic tour de force by Mr. Beard as the head waiter), sustain their own complex characters and remain credible throughout in helping to create this captivating world.

In discussing the four major productions of the 2013 Princeton Summer Theater season, artistic director Emma Watt says, “They were bound by a common theme of making the ordinary extraordinary.” With its exquisite music, lyrics, and book, under the direction of Ms. Bischoff and her superb PST company, She Loves Me does just that and promises a dynamic, exhilarating PST season ahead.

May 15, 2013
LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

Your favorite fairy tales — Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel — they start with wishes, and “I wish” is a repeated refrain in Into the Woods (1987), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark and psychological, whimsical and musical spin on the Brothers Grimm. In pursuit of their wishes, all of Sondheim’s characters venture deep into the woods: “Into the woods,/it’s time to go./I hate to leave,/I have to, though./into the woods—/it’s time, and so/I must begin my journey.”

As their specific quests — to escape, to visit Grandma, to sell a cow, to find a prince — continue and interweave with each other, the plot dashes ahead at a rapid pace. The familiar fairy tales remain, but the principal characters develop in interesting, complex, three-dimensional ways, moving far beyond the pre-intermission “happy ending.” A childless baker and his wife, seeking to remove a witch’s curse so they can have a baby, help to tie plot strands together as they join the fray in search of four objects that the witch demands: a red cape (from Red Ridinghood), a white cow (from Jack), yellow hair (from Rapunzel), and a golden slipper (from Cinderella).

Fiasco Theater’s “reimagined” rendition of this much-loved show, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9, will not disappoint Into the Woods aficionados. Though a single piano, instead of full orchestra, provides most of the musical accompaniment, along with bassoon, cello, trumpet, and guitar picked up and played sporadically by the actors on stage; and just ten actors, with some inventive doubling and tripling of roles, play all the parts; this does not feel like a “stripped down” production.

On the contrary, the wildly imaginative staging, shifting of roles, costuming, sound effects, set and lighting and the contagious spirit of collaboration — a trademark of Fiasco Theater, which recently presented a highly acclaimed six-actor version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline off-Broadway — make this production a lavish feast of music, story-telling, and creativity, further enriched by the irresistible engagement of the audience’s imagination.

Given the frenetic nature of the original, with so many plot strands and such an array of wildly realistic and unrealistic, natural and supernatural characters and extravagant events, Fiasco Theater does a remarkable job of bringing clarity to the proceedings. If there at times seems to be a bit too much going on here — too much plot, too long an evening (almost three hours, with one intermission), too many disparate characters — with the consequent difficulty for the audience in really caring about or identifying with all these questing figures, then perhaps Sondheim and Lapine, rather than Fiasco and McCarter, must take the responsibility.

Based on The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological interpretations of fairy tales, Into the Woods is about the importance of stories, stories that are handed down from generation to generation. It is about what those stories mean and how they are told — stories about human experience: growing up, discovering who we are, learning how to accept and to overcome being alone. And it’s about parents and step-parents. “Mother cannot guide you./Now you’re on your own./Only me beside you./Still you’re not alone./No one is alone.”

Then in the second act (“Once upon a time … later …”), as the protagonists all must go back into the woods, the story is about darker concerns: moral decisions (facing the giants!), death, loss, adult passions, and broken marriages. But, perhaps even more importantly, and especially vibrantly realized in this production, Into the Woods is about the sheer delight of stories and the collaboration of storytellers and artists, along with listeners, participating together to bring life and meaning to these stories. To watch and to participate in this rollicking event with these likable, enormously talented performers is a pleasure.

The Fiasco ensemble, several of whose members emerged from the Brown University theater program, takes imaginative collaboration and ensemble playing to new levels. Accompanied by the uncompromisingly adept pianist/music director Matt Castle, an integral part of the proceedings as his piano wheels around the stage from scene to scene, this cast does everything with skill, precision, and abandon — from moving sets, to manipulating props, to transforming costumes and characters, to singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and acting with intensity.

Jessie Austrian, a founder and co-artistic director of Fiasco, plays the Baker’s Wife with memorable conviction and credibility, engaging the audience in her plight, first as childless wife, then as protective mother of a baby, then the straying wife in the second act. She delivers powerful duets and a reflective, moving second-act solo, “Moments in the Woods.”

As the witch (the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters), Jennifer Mudge rises to the challenge with her frightening, witchy tormenting of Rapunzel and the Baker and his wife in the first act, then her transformation into a beautiful princess, her loss of magical powers (“Witch’s Lament”) and her acquired wisdom, all delivered with dramatic and vocal power and appeal.

Emily Young does dynamic double duty as Rapunzel and as a feisty, aggressive Little Red Ridinghood, complete with wolf skin cloak in place of red cloak after her violent, triumphant encounter with the wolf. Claire Karpen’s Cinderella brings interesting added dimensions to the romanticized fairy tale role, as she interacts, in action and song, with not just her eccentrically nasty step sisters and step mother, but also with her deceased mother, a sympathetic Baker’s Wife, a less-than-ideal prince/husband and a host of other characters. Liz Hayes lends strong support with a suitably harsh edge as both Cinderella’s stepmother and Jack’s mother.

Among the male contingent Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen share the prize for versatility and ubiquity — also for extraordinary talent and theatrical prowess of all sorts. Mr. Brody is a deliciously savage, scheming, and lascivious wolf as he sings and wheedles his way with Red Ridinghood (“There’s no possible way/to describe what you feel/when you’re talking to your meal!”).

And how, you might ask, does Mr. Brody also play both wicked step-sister Lucinda and Cinderella’s prince? The answer is a delight to behold, as the two princes’ act one and act two duet (with Mr. Grotelueschen), “Agony” and its reprise, provide comical highlights of the show and timeless commentary on the arrested male psyche. Mr. Grotelueschen, burly and bearded, also offers, with only a bell for a costume and prop, a first-rate characterization of Jack’s cow and a memorable Florinda, wicked second stepsister to Cinderella.

As the Baker, Ben Steinfeld, also a founder of Fiasco and co-artistic director, creates a thoughtful, sympathetic character, as he struggles first with the demands of the witch, then with his wife, then with the perils of fatherhood and other dilemmas throughout the play.

Patrick Mulryan as Jack and the royal Steward contributes two contrasting and credible roles, a powerful voice and strong presence, and Paul L. Coffey as the Mysterious Man adds the appropriate air of mystery and musical expertise both vocally and instrumentally.

Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Brody, listed as co-directors of the production, have pulled together the multiple disparate elements of this show with focus, dynamic pacing, and extraordinary coordination of acting, music, set, props, lighting, sound, and special effects.

Derek McLane’s imposing set, looking like the enlarged and exploded insides of a piano, provides a fascinating, provocative backdrop to the action. The long, vertical metallic brown rods loom over the set and threaten like the tall dark trees of a forest. The set is a masterpiece in its own right, with definite relevance to the events of the evening. Whether it actually furthers or distracts from Fiasco’s purpose of stripping down to essentials in order to emphasize the actors, the text, and the story is another question.

Choreography by Lisa Shriver, inventive costuming by Whitney Locher, dramatic lighting by Tim Cryan, and striking sound by Darron L. West all contribute essential elements to the stimulation of the audience’s imagination and the creation of this wonderful, magical, sometimes terrifying, sometimes whimsical world of Into the Woods.

To create a cow with just a bell, or a wolf with just a stuffed head and a little leather for paws, or a magical hen with a feather duster, or birds out of paper, or a tower from a wheeling ladder, or a truly terrifying giantess with just a shadow and the booming of a bass drum, not to mention a whole world of Grimm’s fairy tales on a small stage — that’s theater magic, and it can be found in abundance at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre during the next four weeks, in Fiasco Theatre’s exhilarating production of Into the Woods.

April 17, 2013

For the course “Documentary Film and the City,” Princeton University Urban Studies students have a ready-made laboratory less than 15 miles away: Trenton. The capital city is a gold mine for the kinds of issues they explore — rising crime, failed housing developments, abandoned buildings, and policy problems.

But the urban setting also offers a window into how these problems might be solved. The students have been working on “The Trenton Project,” a collaborative collection of mini-documentaries about housing in the city that will be shown next month as part of an ongoing film series at the School of Architecture’s Betts Auditorium. Interviewing developers, social workers, housing specialists, and residents, the students have seen the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel.

“Out in the field, they have been really amazed by the dedication of the social workers they’ve been talking with,” says Purcell Carson, a documentary film editor who is teaching the course. “When you think of a welfare office, you don’t normally think of people being totally emotionally invested in their clients. But that’s what they’ve seen, and it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve also seen that problems of the city are not just public policy, but have to be thought about by individuals as well. They’ve been really interested in the developers, small and large, who see opportunity where others see problems.”

The Urban Studies Film Series has been screening documentaries and other films, followed by talks with various scholars, writers, and filmmakers, since early March. Greetings from Asbury Park is scheduled for April 23, followed by a discussion with the director. On April 30, La Sierra, about Colombia’s bloody conflict, will be shown. Works in progress from The Trenton Project will be screened May 7. The final showing of the Trenton Project will be May 20 at Artworks, in Trenton. All programs are free and open to the public.

This is the first year that “Documentary Film and the City” has been offered to University students. They are working in conjunction with the University’s Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), which pairs students with local non-profits to do community-based research. As part of the course, they have learned about issues in Camden, the Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing, and other related subjects. They took part in a history of public housing tour last month.

“They are looking at questions such as ‘How do you come in with this knowledge of a living place, and tell the stories that are unfolding right before you?’” says Alison Isenberg, a professor of history who co-directs the program in Urban Studies. A recent screening of The Pruitt Igoe Myth about a public housing project in St. Louis attracted up to 50 people, who came not just from the University but from Trenton, New Brunswick, and beyond.

“One of the opportunities of a series like this is to take the scholarship embodied in this kind of documentary, and use it to help animate a discussion about a place like Trenton today,” Ms. Isenberg adds. “The turnout, to me, was indicative of exactly the interest in that crossover. What can we learn from both the historical and ongoing efforts at rebuilding? What can we take from this discussion in a living and breathing way, for the very same questions that swirl in the policy decisions that people are making every month? We hope to sustain the discussion of those issues through the next couple of weeks.”

For Ms. Carson, who is contracted to teach at Princeton for three years, the course has a double goal: to educate students about documentary film, and about east coast post-industrial cities and the problems they face today. This semester’s focus on housing is “a way of having each of the short films they make create a broader mosaic portrait together,” she says. “My goal at the beginning of the semester was to find situations and circumstances along the spectrum of housing, and put my students in those situations to make these very short, slice-of-life portraits.”

Working with CBLI, Ms. Carson has paired her students with subjects through the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, among other agencies. Some of the students have focused their lens on the former Miller Homes high-rise housing project near the Trenton Transit Station, which will become the Rush Crossing community of townhouses. “They’ve been talking to the local housing authority, the developers, and the people who used to live in those homes and were kicked out when the city decided they were a problem that was unfixable,” she says.

Other students are making films about the thousands of abandoned properties in the city. Their research has paired them with a representative from the Isles organization, a developer, and other members of the community.

“These students are mostly sociologists and public policy people,” Ms. Carson says. “Documentary film is a really interesting way to make big problems legible and expose them through a different lens.”


April 10, 2013
INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

The first half feels like an abbreviated Othello — raging jealousy replete with tragic overtones and dire events. The world is stark, cold, male-dominated, and hostile. That’s the “winter” part. The second half moves to a pastoral setting, like the rural realm of As You Like It — springtime, celebration, flowers and butterflies, disguises and mistaken identities, love and joyous revelry, and a female presiding spirit. The last scene, with a hint of Shakespeare’s other great romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest, attempts to reconcile the two worlds with their disparate characters and themes.

The Winter’s Tale, directed by Rebecca Taichman (director of Twelfth Night and Sleeping Beauty Wakes at McCarter in 2009 and 2011 respectively,) is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, written in 1611, just before The Tempest. It is one of those late, difficult-to-categorize works, sometimes called tragicomedy, sometimes romance. If you’re looking for Othello or As You Like It, you might be disappointed here. A Winter’s Tale is neither great tragedy nor great comedy, but it presents memorable serious and comical material, psychological depth and enchanting fairy-tale improbabilities, sadness and joy in abundance, death, births, rebirths, and marriages.

The challenges of this magnificently complex, unwieldy play with its mixed tones, its tangled plot, and its rich Shakespearean verse, are significant, but Ms. Taichman and McCarter have assembled top-flight performers and a superb production team to tackle the task. The show is captivating from start to finish — dazzlingly inventive, visually and dramatically stunning.

Ms. Taichman has judiciously pared down the script, cutting many lines and reducing the number of characters from more than thirty to about twenty. Almost all of the actors in the nine-member ensemble play multiple roles. The results are illuminating, thought-provoking, and never unclear.

The Winter’s Tale begins in the court of King Leontes (Mark Harelik) in Sicilia. The spare setting and costuming are contemporary and formal. The action is partly stylized, partly realistic. Christine Jones’ ingenious set creates a certain theatricality for the telling of this “tale” in a lit-up double proscenium arch with a spiral of twenty pendant lights hanging chandelier-fashion. The furniture consists mainly of nine elegant dining room chairs, lined up downstage at the start, as the opening scene exposition is delivered, then moved upstage. Actors not involved in particular scenes watch, as if bearing witness, from their chairs on the upstage wall.

The Sicilia half of the play is the story of Leontes’ sudden suspicion of an adulterous relationship between his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) and his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), who has been visiting for nine months. Leontes bursts into jealous rage. Polixenes, with the help of Leontes’ adviser and assistant , Camillo (Brent Carver), escapes back to Bohemia, but Hermione is thrown into prison, where she gives birth to a baby daughter, Perdita, whom Leontes orders taken into exile and abandoned.

Leontes remains adamant in his irrational misogyny and sexual jealousy, despite brave and impassioned pleas from Paulina (Nancy Robinette), Hermione’s wise and faithful lady-in-waiting. In a scene of high drama, Leontes puts Hermione on trial. Word from Apollo’s oracle informs Leontes of his extreme misapprehensions; news arrives of the death of Leontes’ and Hermione’s young son, and the queen faints away (apparently dead). At that point, Leontes undergoes a sudden conversion, repenting his errors and vowing to do penance in an attempt to atone for the “deaths” of his innocent wife, son, and daughter.

The second half of the play, set mostly in the countryside of Bohemia (before returning to Sicilia for final reconciliations), offers welcome relief — and ultimately rebirth, transformation, and redemption — after the dark gloom and cynicism of Leontes’ world. Sixteen years have passed and Perdita (Heather Wood), who has been found and adopted by a Bohemian shepherd (Ted van Griethuysen) and his son (Tom Story), becomes the central character of the last acts.

Perdita has fallen in love with none other than young Florizel (Todd Bartels), the disguised son of King Polixenes, who, also disguised, discovers the young lovers at a spring festival of flowers and sheep shearing and forbids the continuation of their romance. Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes and Camillo.

Highly improbably — but this is the world of romance, and as its title suggests, the play grants Shakespeare the prerogative of the storyteller — the final scenes in Sicilia see the discovery of Perdita’s true identity and her reunion with her father. Leontes is then reconciled with Polixenes, and, through certain machinations of Paulina, Leontes is reunited with his wife, who was not really dead after all. In addition to the reunion of Leontes and Hermione, the marriages of Perdita and Florizel and of the elderly Camillo and Paulina bring the proceedings to a happy close.

Mr. Harelik’s Leontes is powerful and psychologically compelling, despite the implausible speed with which his jealous fury comes upon him. As the shape-shifting trickster Autolycus in Bohemia, Mr. Harelik displays an impressive versatility and infuses the second act scenes with a generous dose of high-spirited, roguish humor.

Ms. Yelland’s Hermione embodies regal and maternal dignity, strength, and beauty in abundance, making an unscripted but dazzlingly evocative appearance in mid-play to complement her spirited presence in the opening scenes and at the culmination of the evening.

Ms. Wood’s fresh-faced, fair and vibrant Perdita effectively delivers a youthful spirit of life and springtime in the second act. In an interesting directorial choice, she also ably fulfills the first-act role of Perdita’s brother, the young boy Mamillius, and of the transformative figure of Time, who explains the 16-year gap in the action and narrates the beginning of the second half of the play.

Mr. Carver’s Camillo and Ms. Robinette’s Paulina, both characters of solid good sense and reason, are crucial to the plot and theme of the play. Paulina is especially strong in speaking truth to power and in orchestrating the scheme that helps to bring about Leontes’ atonement and his reunion with Hermione. Ted van Griethuysen and Mr. Story provide some excellent antics and comic turns in the second half, and, along with Mr. Bartels, portray an array of convincing characters.

Original music for the play, composed by Nico Muhly, is highly effective in creating the multi-faceted, shifting world of The Winter’s Tale. As background music it sets the tone and reflects the psychological atmosphere in the first half of the play, then establishes the celebratory mood of the second half, as three musicians — accordion, fiddle, clarinet — come onstage for the sheep-shearing festivities, and finally helps to create the magical transformation of the last scene.

There are many stunning moments in the play, where Mr. Muhly’s music, Ms. Jones’ set, David Zinn’s creative costumes, and Christopher Akerlind’s frequently shifting, richly expressive lighting all work together successfully with characters and dialogue to communicate the essences of Shakespeare’s play.

“It is required you do awake your faith,” says Paulina in the beautifully staged, wonderfully astonishing final scene of the play, as she presents the “statue” of Hermione and presides as it comes to life. This sumptuous Winter’s Tale is an extraordinary tribute to the spirit of comedy and springtime and to the magic of the theatrical illusion with the power to redeem all and bring rebirth and reconciliation. The theater audience cannot help but join the onstage characters as they awake their faith, suspend disbelief and participate in the wonders of this magical tale.

April 3, 2013
ACTING EXERCISES/LIFE LESSONS: Marty (Ava Geyer, facing us) presides over the adult creative drama class that turns out to offer equal parts theatrical training, group therapy, and a study in personalities and relationships, in Theatre Intime’s production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday, April 6. The ensemble also includes (clockwise from Ms. Geyer) Caroline Slutsky, Anna Aronson, Kanoa Mulling, and John Fairchild.

ACTING EXERCISES/LIFE LESSONS: Marty (Ava Geyer, facing us) presides over the adult creative drama class that turns out to offer equal parts theatrical training, group therapy, and a study in personalities and relationships, in Theatre Intime’s production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday, April 6. The ensemble also includes (clockwise from Ms. Geyer) Caroline Slutsky, Anna Aronson, Kanoa Mulling, and John Fairchild.

Explosion tag, gibberish dialogue (“goulash, goulash,” “ak mak, ak mak”), memory exercises, sharing secrets, role-playing the personas of others in the class, reenactment of past life events — the setting is an adult creative drama class in the town of Shirley, Vermont. “The point,” the instructor asserts, in explaining their counting-to-ten exercise, “is being able to be totally present. To not get in your head and second-guess yourself. Or the people around you.”

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), currently playing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a low-key, idiosyncratic drama, humorous and also sad, about five individuals, in thirty different scenes over the six-week period of their community center drama class.

“Are we going to be doing any real acting?” a character asks the teacher after the first few weeks. The answer is no, and what transpires is less theatrical training than group therapy, subtle human drama and exploration of life and relationships. Ms. Baker, rising 31-year-old New York playwright, winner of numerous awards with a new play The Flick currently in its premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, describes Circle Mirror Transformation as “hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time.”

Winner of two Obie Awards for Best New American Play and Best Ensemble Performance, Circle Mirror Transformation seems to be about the five characters — all lost, all seeking connection — searching for themselves. The “circle mirror transformation” of the title is one of the drama exercises the group engages in, but it also evokes the themes of group interdependence and unity in the circle, of self-confrontation and reflection in the mirror, and of character growth, development, transformation. The back wall of Aryeh Stein-Azen’s skillfully rendered dance studio unit set is, appropriately, a mirror, which helps to create, realistically and thematically, the world of this play.

Ms. Baker’s dialogue is dynamic and convincing. Her characters are believable in their awkwardness, their frustrations, their wants and needs. The acting class proceeds, relationships between the characters develop, and a sort of plot does move forward. The style here though is at times exasperatingly slow, with seemingly very little happening — perhaps resembling the reticent style of Chekhov’s plays more than that of any contemporary playwrights. The major events for these characters have already happened in the past or they happen offstage between the weekly classes. Frequent silences of varying lengths seem to be the trademark of Ms. Baker’s playwriting. Major changes and small revelations in the lives of these characters come to light — subtly, surprisingly, often obliquely, sometimes through those powerful and eloquent silences — during the six class sessions.

Audiences might be divided between those who enjoy the interesting and rich characterizations, the subtle interactions, the silences, and the low-key, ultra-realistic style, and those who feel exasperated at the slow pacing, the pauses, and the frequent scene shifts. Ms. Baker’s The Flick, almost a full hour longer than Circle Mirror Transformation’s intermission-less 120 minutes, has received acclaim from the critics but mixed responses from its New York audiences. Last Friday night’s audience at Theatre Intime’s Circle Mirror Transformation seemed thoroughly engaged and entertained.

The Intime five-person undergraduate ensemble, under the thoughtful, able direction of Princeton University sophomore Annika Bennett, is well rehearsed and committed, but challenged by the difficult age stretches required here.

Ava Geyer as Marty presides over the group with an understated, pensive, almost maternal authority. A warm and sympathetic presence, Marty establishes a significant, positive relationship with each of the students in the class, though her long-time marriage to James (Kanoa Mulling) suffers serious setbacks during the course of the play. Ms. Geyer makes the 35-year character stretch here to create this character and her relationships with appealing sensitivity and credibility.

As her husband, Mr. Mulling is focused and articulate in his love for his wife, his interest in another woman and his difficulties with his grown-up daughter from a previous marriage. But, despite his greyed hair and some obvious aches and pains of a 60-year-old, Mr. Mulling’s youthful demeanor makes this character less than convincing.

Caroline Slutsky as 35-year-old Theresa, who has recently left a bad relationship and an acting career in New York City, successfully portrays a delicate balance of vitality and vulnerability, as she interacts dynamically with each of the other members of the group.

John Fairchild’s 48-year-old Schultz and Anna Aronson’s 16-year-old Lauren complete the ensemble with sympathetic, memorable characterizations. Schultz, in his fragility after a recent divorce and his infatuation with Theresa, and Lauren, in her adolescent shyness, her emergence from a troubled family, and her aspirations to become an actress, both manifest extreme awkwardness and insecurity. Mr. Fairchild and Ms. Aronson capture these qualities with mostly effective but uneven plausibility.

Annie Baker wrote about this play in 2009: “I wanted to explore how theater can actually happen to a group of people, not just through improvisation and movement exercises (which are, admittedly, pretty hilarious, whether they happen at Juilliard or in a basement in Vermont), but through the sound of sneakers skidding on the floor, the awkward silences during a bathroom break, the pain of an inappropriate crush. I’m happy, and honored, to show that strange little world to an audience, and to celebrate all the people who make art together and don’t stop to worry about whether or not their names will be remembered.”

Bravo to director Annika Bennett and her Theatre Intime ensemble for offering to us this fascinating new voice in American Theater with its idiosyncratic and irresistible ability to draw audiences into the silences, to care about these yearning human beings, and to care about their secrets and their difficult future lives even after class is over and the play ends.

February 27, 2013
FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.

January 30, 2013
PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Towards the end of the first act of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966), currently playing in a stunning revival at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Tobias (John Glover) late middle-aged, upper- middle-class suburbanite, reminisces about a pet cat he had owned and loved for many years. One day he realized that “she didn’t like me any more. It was that simple …. I resented having a … being judged. Being betrayed.” So he took her to the veterinarian to be put to sleep.

Some forty years later Tobias lives in a precariously balanced marriage with his wife Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Penny Fuller) has taken up permanent residence, and, before long, best friends Harry (James A. Stephens) and Edna (Roberta Maxwell) move in, followed soon afterwards by Tobias and Agnes’ 36-year-old daughter Julia (Francesca Faridany), returning home from the break-up of her fourth marriage. Tobias’ cat story may be a metaphor for the human relationships in this play, but there is no vet available to provide a simple way out for any of these tortured characters. They must live with the losses inflicted by time and the existential terrors of human life.

A Delicate Balance, the first of three Albee plays — also Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991) — to win the Pulitzer Prize, resonates with a striking immediacy and timelessness in this brilliant, thoroughly engaging production. Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and a longtime friend and collaborator of Mr. Albee, has directed here with authority and wisdom, bringing out the full horror and the full tenderness of these thoroughly mundane yet bizarre proceedings. Ms. Mann has assembled an ideal cast, and together they deliver richly deep, complex individual characterizations and an array of relationships that are utterly credible, intriguing, and three-dimensional.

Despite the familiar surfaces in this drama, with an opulent, deceptively conventional upper-class suburban living room setting, beautifully and realistically designed by Daniel Ostling, this is a difficult play for audiences and actors. There are frequent moments of humor, but the themes here are dark, the loquacious dialogue requires close attention, and the play — at least by contemporary standards — is long, about three hours. And nothing happens, or at least not much seems to change from beginning to end for these despairing characters.

A Delicate Balance might be just as mean and deadly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961), considered by many to be Albee’s greatest play, but A Delicate Balance is more subdued, more civilized. In the world of Agnes and Tobias, who were to some degree modeled after Mr. Albee’s adoptive parents, the proprieties of upper class WASP society, that “balance” that Agnes has dedicated her life to preserving, are mostly, except for one or two major outbursts, maintained. “There is a balance to be maintained, after all,” Agnes declares, ” though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring…”

All three acts of A Delicate Balance take place in Agnes and Tobias’ living room. Mr. Ostling’s set is rich in detail, from Oriental rugs to high white molding, beautifully upholstered furniture, sconces, chandeliers, archway leading to front hallway, stairs, and dining room on stage left, adjoining room and backstairs on stage right. At first glance you might want to move right in. After watching the events that transpire during the course of the drama, you will change your mind. A well-supplied liquor table sits at center stage, and alcohol — brandy, cognac, anisette, gin, martinis — serves as a frequent topic of conversation and a motif throughout the play. Claire’s alcoholism is a constant issue and alcohol is a means to help all to escape unpleasant truths and memories and to maintain the “delicate balance” in their lives.

The difficult relationship between Agnes and Tobias quickly becomes apparent in the first act. The intrusions on their shaky domestic scene rapidly ensue. First Claire, who may have had an affair with Tobias in the past but in any case poses a constant threat to her sister’s need for order and control, enters the scene from upstairs. Then Harry and Edna suddenly appear at the front door, with no explanation except that “WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING.” They insist on taking refuge with Agnes and Tobias. They act as if they belong there. By the start of the second act, the angry, self-centered Julia, furious that her childhood room is occupied by Harry and Edna, has joined the volatile mix.

The odd presence of Harry and Edna, and the terror they bring with them threaten to upset the status quo, the social equilibrium of the household. The terror is never specified, never explained, but it is completely credible. Is it the existential fear of loss, the terrible compromises of life, the doubts brought on by contemplation of old age and death? A Delicate Balance is certainly about the needs and requirements of friendship, but it is also about the despair of the human condition and, as Mr. Albee is quoted in his biography by Mel Gussow, ”the isolation of people who have turned their backs on fully participating in their own lives and therefore cannot participate fully in anyone else’s life.”

Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes is elegantly controlled, stern, judgmental, and eloquent in her defense of her way of life. Much celebrated star in Angels in America on Broadway and Wit Off-Broadway, Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes sees herself as the fulcrum of the balance in the family, and is determined to “keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it.”

Mr. Glover (Tony Award winner in Love! Valour! Compassion! along with numerous other Broadway, Off-Broadway and film credits) provides a worthy counterpart and foil to Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes. He is often passive, attempting to be conciliatory with his wife, sister-in-law, daughter, and friends, trying to do the right thing with his intrusive friends, and suffering visibly and sympathetically in “the dark sadness” he inhabits throughout the play.

As Agnes’ alcoholic sister Ms. Fuller injects energy and a needed breath of candor, humor, and fresh air to the household and the events of the play. Ms. Faridany is utterly believable in her characterization of Julia, and even easy to identify with in her anger and resentment at the loss of her childhood and her inability to reclaim her old room.

Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Stephens, as embodiments of the inexplicable fear that pervades the proceedings, are suitably restrained yet dynamic, ominous yet worthy of sympathy, kindness, and pity, from us and from Tobias and Agnes. These character portrayals are other-worldly yet entirely down-to-earth and realistic.

The six-member ensemble, meticulously, seamlessly directed by Ms. Mann, is intensely focused, in character and convincing. The relationships here are endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking, as this extraordinary cast artfully delivers both the dazzlingly eloquent surface and the terrifying depths of Mr. Albee’s play.

Mr. Albee, who was in the audience for last Friday night’s opening, explained, at the time of the last major revival of the play, in 1996, that A Delicate Balance “concerns — as it always has, in spite of early-on critical misunderstanding — the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That message and the enduring power of this disturbing play and its troubled characters continue to resonate richly seventeen years later in Ms. Mann’s memorable production.

December 5, 2012

REPEAT THE PAST?: Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) visits his former lover Patricia (Rachel Saunders) after fifteen years, as he tries to understand and recover something he has lost, as an artist and human being, in Theatre Intime’s production of Donald Margulies “Sight Unseen” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through December 8.

It’s about lost love, the role of the artist, and anti-Semitism. It’s about an identity crisis that strikes as middle-age approaches and brings with it the inevitable compromises of life.

Jonathan Waxman is a rising mega-star in the international art scene of twenty years ago. His controversial modern paintings are sold “sight unseen,” even before they are completed, to wealthy patrons in New York City and throughout the world. In Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies’ 1991 Off-Broadway hit, Jonathan, in London for the first overseas exhibition of his work, journeys out to the country to visit his former lover Patricia and her husband Nick.

Throughout the ensuing eight scenes of Sight Unseen, currently playing in an uneven, though at times luminous and engaging, production at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) and Patricia (Rachel Saunders) seek resolution to a welter of interwoven issues, romantic, aesthetic, and personal. These include their abruptly-terminated relationship of fifteen years earlier, the artist’s role as a public figure in a commercial world, and disputes over anti-Semitism.

Patricia, now an expatriate and her British husband Nick (Peter Giovine) live a modest life in their cold farmhouse, pursuing their archeological explorations of Roman ruins. Jonathan comes upon his painting of Patricia, a gift to her, from 15 years earlier, now hanging prominently in Patricia and Nick’s house. Jonathan recognizes in that painting the inspiration and integrity that, amidst all his success and fame, he has lost. Patricia is still bitter over Jonathan’s rejection of her. Nick, socially awkward and hostile both to Jonathan and the art he creates, clashes with Jonathan over his relationship with Patricia and over the very nature of his artistic work.

The scenes jump forward and backwards in time, from the farmhouse in the present to an interview between Jonathan and a German journalist four days later in London, then back, 15 years to the break-up of Jonathan and Patricia’s relationship, and finally to the college painting studio where the relationship began. The fragmented chronology provides fascinating perspective on the relationship between Jonathan and Patricia, life compromises of both protagonists, and on Jonathan’s controversial evolution as an artist.

Under the direction of Princeton University junior Eric Traub, this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen effectively brings out much of Mr. Margulies’ sharp, provocative dialogue, his intriguingly complex characterizations and his troubling themes.

The four–member ensemble is generally well rehearsed, but an emergency session on projection and diction would be helpful. Ms. Saunders, when playing the settled, married, late-thirties Patricia, is so subdued that she is difficult to hear. Also problematic is Ms. Erin O’Brien’s German-accented, rapidly articulated dialogue with Jonathan, as she spars over his Jewishness, his commercialism, and his authenticity as an artist in the second scenes of both acts.

Ms. Saunders is at her best in the two powerful flashback scenes with Jonathan — their meeting in the painting studio at a New York college and their break-up soon after graduation, as Jonathan is mourning his mother’s death. Thoroughly convincing and in character in these scenes, Ms. Saunders offers a striking, warmly human stage presence and a worthy artist’s muse. It is not surprising that these undergraduate performers would have a less firm a grasp on the more ambiguous and disillusioned late thirties versions of these characters.

Mr. Adelson’s Jonathan is focused, articulate, and expressive in showing his range of emotions, from desire and confidence to frustration, regret and sadness, as he struggles in his quest to understand and reconnect with his past.

Mr. Giovine, as the ill at ease British archeologist, successfully portrays an eccentric, angry presence — resentful of Jonathan’s past relationship with Patricia and scornful of Jonathan’s artistic accomplishments. He becomes strongly outspoken and manifestly hostile when he goes on the attack in the second of two acts.

Ms. O’Brien presents the aggressive journalist, who puts Jonathan on the defensive, artistically and personally. Her complex interrogations, complete with heavy German accent, do need to be delivered more slowly and clearly.

Michaela Karis’s set design, with lighting by Laura Hildebrand, is efficient and successful in portraying the four different locales represented in the eight scenes — farmhouse, London art gallery, Jonathan’s family home in Brooklyn, and the college art studio. Mr. Traub has staged the action clearly and intelligently, with necessary scenery sliding on and off swiftly. A screen at far stage right with brief film footage and labels for dates and times helps to create the world of the play and clarify the shifts as the action moves back and forth between city and country, 1990s, and 1970s.

Despite frequent moments of humor, Sight Unseen is ultimately a poignantly sad story of loss. “You’re an artist! An artist has to experience the world!” Patricia exhorts Jonathan during their first romantic encounter, finally presented in the closing moments of the play. “How can you experience the world if you say ‘no’ to things you shouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to?!” Seventeen years later they may both have experienced the world. They may both be wiser. But the loss has been greater than the gain. Mr. Margulies and this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen invite their audiences to engage with these interesting characters in this exploration of their tangled lives and their uneasy world.

November 14, 2012

DEADLY DECEPTIONS: Terrorized by three con men in her Greenwich Village apartment, Susy (Sarah Cuneo, right) uses her blindness to advantage and teams up with her young neighbor Gloria (Anna Aaronson) to foil the villains’ plans, in Frederick Knott’s 1966 thriller “Wait Until Dark,” currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus.

If, after Halloween and Hurricane Sandy, you still have an appetite for breathtaking moments and frightening drama, for tense periods of waiting and surprisingly long stretches of darkness, then Frederick Knott’s classic 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark, currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, might be just the show for you.

There is something reassuring about dealing with such matters in a fictional setting, in the confines of a theater, and murder mystery enthusiasts will especially enjoy this intricate, high-suspense thriller. Wait Until Dark starred Lee Remick and Robert Duvall in its original 374-performance Broadway run, then Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in the acclaimed movie adaptation a year later (1967).

An ingenious set-up, some interesting character development, and no fewer than three formidable, contrasting and complementary villains here enrich the proceedings. The build-up to the central clash between a blind woman, aided by a young girl neighbor, and the ruthless con men looking for a mysterious doll filled with heroin is at times overly complex and confusing, at times lacking in verisimilitude. But the wild finale, when utter darkness levels the playing field for a duel between this blind woman and her adversary, provides abundant suspense and entertainment. The audience response of shocked terror was audible last Saturday night during the climactic scene, which, at least in the screen version, has been ranked tenth on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

Under the thoughtful, capable direction of Princeton University sophomore Michael Pinsky, Intime’s production of Wait Until Dark delivers an interesting, engaging evening with what Mr. Pinsky describes in his director’s note as a challenging, “technically adventurous piece of theater.” The undergraduate cast is generally strong, especially so in the villain department.

Misha Semenov’s sturdy, functional, detailed set — complete with period refrigerator and telephone, photography equipment for the protagonist Susy’s husband Sam, a safe, Venetian blinds — along with Collin Stedman’s lighting design, sound by Ben Schaffer and props by Jack Moore, successfully creates the 1960s Greenwich Village basement apartment and brings all the requisite details together for fulfillment of the complex plot.

Sarah Cuneo, in the central role as Susy, projects both beauty and strength, vulnerability, and an intrepid spirit, as she gradually realizes she is being conned, then struggles to concoct and carry out her plan to outwit her ruthless adversaries. Believable throughout as the blind woman trapped and terrorized, Ms. Cuneo displays a wide range of emotions and readily wins the audience’s sympathies, despite occasional lack of clarity in action and word, especially during her most panicked moments.

Mark Walter as the icy cool Roat leads the criminal trio. In black leather jacket, with a chillingly sing-song voice and a smooth, detached, sinister demeanor, this psychopath commands the stage, and his two henchmen, with authority. From start to finish the character leaves no doubt of his deadly determination to get what he wants.

Cody O’Neil as a smooth-talking, charming Mike, and David Drew as the physically imposing, slow-witted Carlino are both convincing in joining the team of crooks looking to get rich by finding the heroin-stuffed doll, which is supposedly in the possession of Susy and her husband Sam. As Sam, absent during most of the terrifying proceedings, Mike Freyberger is adequate, though there is little development or three-dimensionality to the Susy-Sam marital relationship.

Anna Aaronson’s Gloria, the young girl neighbor from upstairs, contributes some humor and proves crucial to thwarting the villains’ plot, though the age stretch — Gloria was written to be nine years old, and Ms. Aaronson must be at least twice that — is problematic and confusing in distorting both tone and characterization here. Blake Edwards and Mitch Shellman provide effective support as patrolmen, arriving at Susy’s apartment in the final moments of the play.

Wait Until Dark and Dial M for Murder (1952) are Frederick Knott’s two masterpieces in the thriller genre. For carefully calculated plot twists and roller coaster rides of fear and intrigue, they are hard to beat.

October 3, 2012

MISMATCH OR MADE FOR EACH OTHER?: Doug (Brad Wilson) and Kayleen (Katherine ­Ortmeyer) find themselves drawn together through many calamities over the course of 30 years, in Theatre Intime’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 6.

Never thought of vomiting together as a bonding experience? Never fancied a romantic date that consisted of touching each other’s wounds? Never thought of “gruesome” and “entertaining” together to describe a play you’d want to see? Well, there’s a first time for everything, and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009), in a captivating production opening Theatre Intime’s 2012-13 season, delivers many surprises.

Eight-year-old Doug and Kayleen meet for the first time in the school nurse’s office. In this scene titled “Age 8: Face Split Open,” Kayleen describes her stomach ache and Doug describes how he injured his face by riding his bike, Evel Knievel-style off the school roof. Kayleen, fascinated, wants to touch his wound, then picks pieces of gravel out of his hands.

The first of eight scenes centered on various injuries sustained by both characters over a thirty-year period, this childhood encounter sets the tone for the rest of the evening and the future relationship between Doug and Kathleen.

Accident-prone and self-destructive, both continue to hurt themselves in an astonishing variety of ways. Doug, seemingly driven by his unrequited love for Kayleen, blows out an eye with fireworks, gets his teeth knocked out in a fight, steps on a nail then breaks his leg while inspecting a damaged building, gets struck by lightning while on his roof, and falls off a telephone pole (“Maybe if I could climb to the top of this telephone pole in the rain at night, like the mast of a ship lost at sea, maybe I’ll see the shine of you, bringing me home again.”) Kayleen, who realizes her pain-based connection and at times even holds a healing power over Doug, is unable to requite his love. She suffers less dramatically but no less devastatingly by cutting herself — legs and stomach — and undergoing “about 25 medications” and psychiatric treatments.

Whether Kayleen and Doug are mismatched or made for each other never becomes clear, but their relationship remains loving, sensual, and unconsummated, full of mental and physical anguish on both sides, much more about pain than happiness or anything approaching conventional romance.

Yes, the play definitely lives up to its title, emphasis on “gruesome.” But this 90-minute, two-character show, skillfully and creatively directed by Princeton University junior Laura Gates and performed with style, focus, and commitment by senior Bradley Wilson and junior Katherine Ortmeyer makes for an entertaining evening.

Mr. Joseph’s dialogue is sharp, realistic, often funny and touching. Though Mr. Joseph, whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, provides little background beyond Kayleen’s broken home with a harsh father and absent mother, the characters here are richly engaging, intriguing, and surprisingly appealing and sympathetic.

Mr. Wilson’s Doug is charming in his recklessness, honesty, and boyish bravado. His love for Kathleen, manifested in such dramatic fashion, is never in doubt and never diminished as the scenes jump forwards and backwards in time through three decades. Ms. Ortmeyer’s Kathleen is more complex, also increasingly broken physically and mentally as the play progresses, but perhaps even more troubling than her counterpart in her inwardness, her inability to commit, her quiet self-destructiveness.

Despite occasional lines that are difficult to hear, Ms. Ortmeyer creates a rich three-dimensional character, and the relationship established here is fascinating, at times even heartwarming and amusing. The fact that even the vomit scene — the protagonists again in the nurse’s office at school, this time at age thirteen as a school dance is going on in the background (“Our throw up is all mixed together. You wanna see? So awesome.”) — is more sweetly comical than grotesque surely attests to the creative powers of playwright and performers.

Ms. Gates has staged the play with clarity and focus. The eight short scenes, titles for each written on an easel on stage left, move along smoothly, with original music by Mark Watter and Matt Seely helping to set the mood and bridge the gaps. The simple, flexible, functional set by Amy Gopinathan, lighting by Marissa Applegate, and realistic costuming by Annika Bennett are appropriate and on target. As the drama between Doug and Kayleen progresses, between scenes the actors remain on stage, Ms. Ortmeyer stage right, Mr. Wilson stage left, changing costumes and putting on make-up.

The actors’ preparations, sometimes elaborate as they “create” various wounds and transition from age eight through five-year increments to age thirty-eight, add a significant element to the production. The breaks between scenes, the titles and the non-chronological sequence of events, the appearance of the actors “behind the scenes,” all have a certain distancing effect for the audience. Rather than being invited to lose ourselves in the lives of Doug and Kayleen, we are constantly reminded that we are watching actors as they present these characters. Curiously though, watching the actors’ preparations between scenes also adds a certain intimacy, distancing us perhaps from the lives of Doug and Kayleen, but at the same time inviting us into the theatrical process as Mr. Wilson and Ms. Ortmeyer take on these personas, get into character to struggle with the lives and passions of these troubled souls.

Ms. Ortmeyer, Mr. Wilson, Ms. Gates, and the Theatre Intime company team up with the 38-year-old Mr. Joseph here to provide an eccentrically interesting evening, and the promise of worthy future theatrical adventures.

September 19, 2012

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang at McCarter Theatre Center. Directed by Nicholas Martin, the production, which is produced in association with Lincoln Center Theater, runs through October 14. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

When “Chekhovian”—sadness, regrets, introspection, frustration—meets “Durangian”—wild absurdities, astonishing eccentricities, anarchic comedy—the results turn out to be both moving and hilarious. Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last weekend, populates its contemporary Bucks County setting with a collection of characters loosely based on figures from the turn-of-the-century (1900) Russian playwright’s somber masterpieces.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is full of contemporary references, to its present-day setting and the world of pop culture, and at the same time imbued with Chekhovian nostalgia and memories of a kinder, gentler past, in this case the 1950s and ‘60s, of these characters’ and Mr. Durang’s youth.

The updating and geographical shift work well. Certain artists’ names become adjectives for a reason, something to do with timelessness and universality, as Emily Mann obviously realized four years ago in her creation of A Seagull in the Hamptons, a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896). Mr. Durang, now 63, describes in an interview how “a few years ago I was at a place in my life where a lot of Chekhov’s characters are, where they’re looking back and asking ‘did I take the right road?’, ‘oh, I didn’t do that and I should have,’ and ‘I didn’t go to Moscow, should I have?’” Mr. Durang had moved to a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which further brought to mind the world of Chekhov’s plays and his characters, who “are living in the country and their more glamorous relatives are off doing things out in the world while the people who are living at home feel like they haven’t had lives.”

The distinguished cast here, under the direction of Nicholas Martin, Durang veteran and former director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, delivers with style and poignancy this hybrid of outrageous comedy and sad, moving family drama—“Chekhov in a blender,” as Mr. Durang describes it.

Mr. Durang has written several of the funniest plays of the past 40 years, from The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1973), Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and Beyond Therapy (1981) to Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999) and Miss Witherspoon (another McCarter premiere in 2005). Mr. Durang, less acerbic, a bit gentler in his satire and characterizations but no less hilarious than he was in his earlier work, is in excellent form here and this top-flight McCarter production serves the play brilliantly.

Three of the finest, and most celebrated, veteran comedic actors anywhere portray the protagonists here, three middle-aged siblings, given names out of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and (adopted) sister, live in the old family farmhouse, beautifully rendered in David Korins’ meticulously detailed set. The action of the play takes place in the sunroom with stairs leading up to the second floor and upstage exit leading to the front door and other parts of the house. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of an auspicious blue heron.

Their dull, often contentious, lives are interrupted by the arrival of their self-absorbed, movie star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity. She arrives with her much younger stud boyfriend Spike (Billy Magnussen), a wannabe actor with a penchant for taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants. She summarily announces — shades of Chekhov — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Masha is not particularly sensitive to the needs of her siblings or of anyone but herself, but she is the only one making a living and paying the bills.

The histrionic cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant) appears with a colorful array of moderately reliable psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies and deft voodoo techniques; and Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young star-struck neighbor, drops in, to Masha’s chagrin, on invitation from Spike.

The principals go out to a local costume party — Masha is determined to commandeer all attention as Walt Disney’s Snow White and to assign all other roles for her siblings and friends, and the action continues through one evening and into the next day.

The six-member ensemble is wisely, shrewdly cast and brilliantly focused, individually and as an interrelated group, in the creation of these eccentric and diverse individuals.

Mr. Pierce, who made his Broadway debut right out of college in the original production of Beyond Therapy in 1982, creates a character like his namesake in Chekhov, but less anguished, more peaceful, hopeful and happy in his consignment to a quiet life of regrets and only the most modest pleasures. Mr. Pierce’s deadpan style and searingly funny comic gift (renown on Broadway, Off-Broadway, on film, and perhaps most memorably as Niles in Frasier on TV) serve him well here, as he helps to ground his more exuberant sisters and captures both the Chekhovian nostalgia and the Durangian hilarity. He explodes into a show-stopping final-act diatribe on the value of “shared memories” — all lost to younger generations of the twenty-first century. Remember those postage stamps you had to lick? Typewriters? Howdy Doody, The Ed Sullivan Show, Davy Crockett and coonskin caps, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Show and Old Yeller, all now replaced by “video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment “?

As Spike, whose texting during the reading of Vanya’s play set off the declamatory monologue, observes, “Wow, what’s up with him? That was a major flip out.”

Ms. Nielsen’s Sonia provides another unforgettable characterization in her over-the-top, bi-polar miseries and rages and her comical body language and vocal histrionics, as she laments her spinsterhood and her doomed rivalry with her glamorous sister. Even Sonia gets her moment, however, in the second act, as her Maggie Smith-as-Evil Queen at the costume party wins her the modicum of attention and accompanying self-confidence she has so sadly missed in the previous fifty years of her life. Her next-day telephone conversation with a man she met at the costume party is a tour-de-force of Durangian humor combined with Chekhovian poignancy, as we laugh loudly then empathize fondly from moment to tense moment. Durang aficionados will happily recall Ms. Nielsen’s brilliant star turns in Betty’s Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon, along with a host of other distinguished stage and screen credits.

Ms. Weaver, in this part created especially for her by Mr. Durang, who has been a friend and often a collaborator since Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s, embodies the role of Masha with flair, obviously delighting in taking on this extravagantly caricatured version of herself. Ms. Weaver (star in, among many other stage and screen appearances, Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist, Avatar and the upcoming Vamps, in which she plays a vampire) delivers all the right moves to create this ultimate aging prima donna who has been gallivanting around the world. The character does appear as a one-dimensional stereotype, all surface, difficult to identify with, until late in the play when her misfortune — and the fact that she is contemplating a grandmother role in her next movie — brings her down to earth with a certain heartwarming humanity.

The three supporting characters are far from minor. Ms. Grant’s Cassandra, not Chekhovian but straight out of Greek mythology, injects a significant dose of adrenalin into the proceedings with her ominous predictions and her mystical, sassy, high-energy interactions with the main characters. Mr. Magnussen’s sexually charged, narcissistic Spike is another extreme stereotype and one from yet another dimension — certainly out of place in rural Bucks County or Chekhov’s world or amongst any adults, Masha excepted, over the age of 30. Mr. Magnussen makes the most of Spike’s incongruity in this setting to deliver a number of rich comedic moments.

As Nina — more Chekhovian echoes — the youthful Ms. Angelson presents an appealing, sincere and idealistic presence, and more thought-provoking contrast to illuminate the other extravagant figures in this play.

Because of the extensive allusions to Chekhov and also to popular culture of the past sixty years, the best audience for this play, which will move on from McCarter to Lincoln Center at the end of October, would undoubtedly be in Mr. Durang’s late middle-aged age group and preferably familiar with Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. But the good news is, even if you don’t qualify on one or both of these scores and even though you might miss some of the jokes, there is still plenty going on in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Chekhov and Durang, along with Mr. Martin and his wonderful cast, provide a hilarious, lively, entertaining evening for all.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will run through October 14 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets, show times and further information, call 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

August 8, 2012

COURTSHIP AND CONFLICT: Lili (Sarah Paton) and Nick (Andrew Massey) meet and fall in love — it’s 1960, summertime, a lake in the Catskills — but that’s just the beginning of their problems in Princeton Summer Theater’s season finale, Richard Greenberg’s melancholy comedy “The American Plan,” playing at The Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 12.

In the closing moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) moving, captivating production of The American Plan, Lili and Nick look back on a romantic relationship that could have been and recall the words of a lullaby that Lili’s mother Eva used to sing: “Happiness exists, but it’s for other people.”

Those words capture the tone of this play and the worldview that it presents. Under the intelligent, inspired direction of Daniel Rattner, The American Plan (1990) by Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, 2003) provides a multi-layered, beautifully designed finale to Princeton Summer Theater’s outstanding 2012 season.

Set in 1960 at a summer house in the Catskills, The American Plan takes place in a world delicately balanced between hopes and fears of past and future. Her transistor radio plays Bobby Darin’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” as the troubled, 20-year-old Lili (Sarah Paton) dreams of a prince who will come to carry her away from her humdrum, privileged life and her domineering mother.

Right on schedule, as the lights rise on the opening scene, Nick (Andrew Massey), handsome WASP interloper in this Jewish enclave, looking “like nothing ever happened to you,” emerges from the lake where he has been swimming and greets Lili. She is reading on the patio of their house across the lake from the Catskills resort where Nick is staying. A writer and aspiring architect who dreams of creating a new city, Nick describes to Lili “the American Plan” (a hotel package deal that includes three meals a day, but in Nick’s mind and in the author’s title of the play, a metaphor for a disturbed, self-indulgent slice of mid-20th century American society): “What Americans live like that? What Americans eat like this? The breakfasts and the lunches and the dinners and the coffees and the teas and the snacks and the hardly-any-exercise in-between…”

All five characters in this play are outcasts, misfits in a world on the cusp of change. Lili’s mother Eva (Maeve Brady), a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, a wealthy widow with her Central Park West apartment and her summer house in the Catskills, looks down on the Jewish resort community and views life with pessimism and suspicion. “The world has a wish for you,” she warns her daughter, “and it’s never good.” Two supporting characters, Olivia (Miyuki Miyagi), Eva and Lili’s maid and caretaker, and Gil (Evan Thompson), who suddenly appears in the second of two acts, are also set apart from the mainstream of society.

As the plot advances, Nick and Lili’s relationship develops, and complications proliferate. Lili is deceitful, bitter and acerbic, edgy and unstable, subject to panic attacks, desperate to find romance and escape from her mother’s tyrannical control, yet inextricably attached and dependent. Nick also hides truths about his life, which Eva relentlessly proceeds to uncover. This prince is not exactly what he first appears to be.

The chemistry between Lili and Nick is strong, the love is apparent, the romance and the possibilities for happiness are rich and promising. But the vicissitudes of life, the workings of the human psyche and well-intentioned (or not) interventions by Eva and others ensure that this is not to be the fairy tale story that Lili and Nick envision.

PST’s polished, intelligent production brings out the nuances in these complex relationships. Mr. Rattner’s pacing moves the plot along effectively, and slows down, particularly as the lights linger at the end of each scene, to engage the audience in the troubled thoughts and yearnings of these struggling characters. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and Alex Mannix’s delicate, evocative lighting create the mood of this world with its pensive inhabitants and its mix of romance and melancholy.

The set — wicker patio furniture, a weathered Adirondack chair, greying boards (like a wharf, or the side of a beach house) for the backdrop — reinforces the wistful mood of the play. A clever, creative transformation for the final scene moves to Eva and Lili’s dark, well-appointed New York apartment ten years later, with political protests raging outside; on the back wall a large flag made of faded jeans stitched together signifies a new phase in the history of the country and in the lives of the play’s protagonists. Production values here and throughout the PST season have been thoroughly professional, first-rate.

As the romantic couple at the play’s core, Ms. Paton and Mr. Massey are appealing and strikingly credible. Both young actors are experienced members of the PST Company, have starred in previous shows this summer, and display significant versatility here in progressing through the many mood shifts of these two characters. From the mannerisms of the attitudinal, sharp-tongued girl of the opening scenes to the more serious and mature adult of the later scenes, Ms. Paton’s Lili grows increasingly convincing and sympathetic. Mr. Massey is charming and conflicted — in character and believable from start to finish. It is not hard to see why these two would quickly fall in love with each other, and why that passionate attachment would cause endless problems for each.

Ms. Brady’s domineering maternal presence as Eva is a strong characterization, unquestionably capable of commanding the stage and the other figures in the play — another credible portrayal despite what seems like a possibly excessive fifty-year age stretch. Ms. Brady’s German accent is effective, but occasionally needs to be clearer in order to communicate this character’s many clever and caustic observations.

Ms. Miyagi and Mr. Thompson provide intelligent, skillful support, detailed and on target in their three-dimensional character delineations.

As director of this production and artistic director of Princeton Summer Theater 2012, Daniel Rattner observes in his program note, “The American Plan is a fitting end to our season because it, somewhat literally, explores what happens at summer’s end — when we are forced to leave a time that feels idle and promising and return to the real world, with its … constant complications.” Fitting, indeed, with its elegiac, end-of-summer shadows and its thought-provoking studies in character and relationships — it’s a worthy conclusion to a rewarding, diverse, and impressively successful 2012 season.

July 25, 2012

AT HER PEAK: Ballerina Cynthia Gregory, shown here as Odile, the black swan in “Swan Lake,” during her career with American Ballet Theatre.

In a classroom at the Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio in Forrestal Village, six young men take their places and wait for music from the ballet Raymonda to begin. Sitting in front of them with her back to the mirror is a woman who was dancing “Raymonda” — and just about every other ballet in the classical repertory — before they were born.

Watching Cynthia Gregory demonstrate how to use a plié, or deep knee bend, to add spring to a jump, or how to open the arms into a more authoritative pose, it seems as if she might have performed these movements yesterday. Yet it has been two decades since this famous ballerina retired from dancing after a stellar, 26-year career with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

These days, Ms. Gregory spends much of her time coaching younger generations of dancers. For the past several years, she has traveled to Princeton from her home in Las Vegas to Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio’s annual Summer Intensive. For one week, she works with the students on the finer points of performance. The 48 students in this year’s program come from several states and Guatemala. In addition to Ms. Gregory, they studied this summer with former ballerinas Susan Jaffe and Kyra Nichols; and with Roy Kaiser, who is artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. The students will give an end-of-term performance Friday, July 27, at 1 p.m. at The Hun School Auditorium. Tickets are $10.

“I like to coach, rather than teach. There are so many better teachers than me,” Ms. Gregory says. “I like to work on the art of dance rather than the nuts and bolts. And they already know what they’re doing when I get here, so I can work on the finer points with them. The students here are very strong. There are no watered-down versions of anything. They’re learning the real thing.”

For Risa Kaplowitz, co-founder of the school, hosting Ms. Gregory each summer is a thrill for the students, and for her. “This is Cynthia’s fourth or fifth time at PDT, and I am still in awe of what she offers the students,” she says. “Her coaching is filled with positive energy and her simple explanations for difficult steps can make such a big difference in how a dancer executes them. Most of all, she gives the variations context and inspires the students to dance them with joy.”

A much younger-looking 66, Ms. Gregory has a warm smile and open manner that seem to put the dancers immediately at ease. She is quick to offer encouragement while pushing her charges to work harder and reach for a level that transcends technique and athleticism.

“The level of technique today is fabulous. It’s amazing,” she says, speaking of ABT, where she spent her career. “But the general feeling is more bravura than drama. Somehow, the heart is gone. We didn’t have that level of technique, but we had something else. I try to pass along what I learned from people like Agnes de Mille, whom I loved. She taught me how to be a real person on stage. I tell the dancers today to be real with their gestures, to be themselves. That translates to the audience.”

De Mille is only one of the renowned choreographers with whom Ms. Gregory worked during her long career. Born in Los Angeles, she began studying ballet as a small child. She managed to get herself into a class that George Balanchine was teaching when she was only 13. The great choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet was impressed and invited her to come study in New York, but she was too young.

A year later, though, she was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice. Her parents sold their home and business and the family moved to San Francisco, where Ms. Gregory thrived. She stayed with the ballet company for four-and-a-half years before deciding to make the move to New York. Since Mr. Balanchine had encouraged her, she expected to join his company, where abstract ballets tend to dominate the repertory.

“But I saw a performance by ABT, and I set my heart on that,” she says. “It was drama. I like to tell a story, and that’s what they were doing. It’s not that I don’t love the Balanchine repertory; I do. But the story ballets suited me best.”

ABT had Giselle and La Sylphide in its repertory when Ms. Gregory joined. Over the years, more full-length classics and ballets by Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and other choreographers were added. “I just fell in love with all of those ballets. They kept adding more, every year or two,” Ms. Gregory says. “I could really immerse myself in the roles.”

While drama was her forte, Ms. Gregory was also a formidable technician. She was known for her ability to balance en pointe longer than just about any other dancer, and her fans loved her for it.

She especially enjoyed working with Mr. Robbins, performing his ballet Other Dances with Alexander Godunov and Kevin McKenzie, now ABT’s artistic director. “He showed another side of me,” she says of the choreographer. “A lot of people never thought of me in that way.” Mr. Robbins was her favorite choreographer. But he was a tough taskmaster. “He made you do things over and over, and I get worse as I do things over and over,” she says. “Twyla [Tharp] was like that, too.”

Ms. Gregory exited ABT during the period that Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director. The Russian superstar favored younger dancers. Only in her mid-thirties, which is considered a dancer’s prime, Ms. Gregory chose to bow out. “I didn’t thrive under him, so I started doing guest performances,” she says, tactfully. “I did get to dance with him once, in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and that was great. But I needed to move on.”

When Ms. Gregory ended her dancing career a few years later, she was ready. “I don’t miss it,” she says. “I was really completely fulfilled.”

She has been divorced twice and widowed once. Ms. Gregory raised her son, now 24, in Greenwich, Connecticut. She moved a few years ago to Las Vegas, where she is an artistic advisor with the Nevada Ballet Theatre. She coaches for that company and elsewhere.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she says, flashing her radiant smile. “I had no major injuries. I got to  work with the most amazing choreographers in the world. And now I get to pass it on.”

July 12, 2012

MARITAL MANIPULATIONS: Manningham (Evan Thompson) subtly deceives his wife (Sarah Paton) into thinking she is going insane, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” (1938), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 15.

A creative work whose title becomes a part of the common cultural vocabulary must strike a resonant chord in our social and psychological worlds, and the indomitable Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) polished, intelligent production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Gaslight presents a vibrant case in point. Our society has recently been struggling to come to terms with the complex psychological ramifications and destructive effects of bullying. “Gaslighting” — a power play which involves manipulating the victim into doubting his or her memory and perceptions — is certainly one of the most insidious forms of that kind of psychological abuse. Unsurprisingly, despite a certain quaint predictability and Victorian-style domestic familiarity, this classic melodrama maintains its power to engage and intrigue audiences almost 75 years after its original production.

Most famous is its 1944 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut, Gaslight, set in London in the 1880s, is the story of a villainous husband and his calculating emotional and psychological torture of his wife, as he drives her to the brink of insanity.

Under the guise of the most caring and kindly paternalism in this traditional Victorian upper-middle class household, he deceives her into believing that she is misplacing valuable objects, neglecting her responsibilities as dutiful wife, and gradually losing her mind in forgetfulness. One of his ruses that make his wife question her senses and sanity is his clandestine raising and lowering of the gas lamps that give the play its title and light the couple’s Victorian living room. The Victorian world and male-dominated marriages of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) come to mind, as does the victimized wife consigned to a 1860s mental institution in Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard (2007).

The PST cast of five principals, all undergraduates or recent college graduates, under the direction of Princeton English and theater professor R.N. Sandberg, is excellent — credible and engaging in making significant character stretches to portray this curious assemblage of characters from a distant world.

In the central Ingrid Bergman role of the beleaguered wife Bella, Sarah Paton is convincing and sympathetic. She portrays a fluctuating fragility that shifts rapidly and credibly from happiness in response to her husband’s feigned affections to desperation and manic hysteria in the face of her fears and desperation in confronting what she is led to believe is her declining mental state. This overly dependent, neurotic stereotype of a Victorian wife is certainly a ripe subject for feminist scrutiny, as is her misogynist husband, though suspense and melodrama are Mr. Hamilton’s priorities rather than social commentary here.

Evan Thompson as Jack Manningham takes on the villain’s role with spirit and poise. His proud posture, thinly veiled insincerity, roguish demeanor, sexist commentary, and inappropriately suggestive overtures to the maid (Ariel Sibert) lucidly reveal his duplicity to the audience, if not to his wife, early on in the play. The audience, realizing Jack’s machinations, then identifying with Bella as she first spirals into distress and fear, then gradually begins to realize her husband’s treachery, enjoy watching as husband and wife match wits in mortal combat.

Ms. Sibert’s impertinent Nancy exudes the brazen spirit and style of the saucy, lascivious maid, and Jack’s flirtations with her become part of his psychological abuse of his wife, as the two women compete for his attentions.

As the elderly house servant Elizabeth, Maeve Brady makes an impressive stretch in age and creates a memorable character, watching closely the suspicious actions of her master and the alarming behavior of her mistress and helping in the end to resolve the tangled plot. Andrew Massey’s avuncular, witty, and determined detective contributes irony and dark humor to the proceedings, eventually winning Bella’s trust and allegiance in opposing the treacherous husband and sorting out his complex schemes and actions. Mr. Massey creates a quirky, believable, and likeable three-dimensional character.

Jeffrey Van Velsor, professional local set designer, in collaboration with talented lighting designer Alex Mannix, has successfully created the Manningham’s living room and this ponderous world of Victorian domestic life. In sharp, welcome contrast to the multiple settings of the 1944 movie version, the audience here stays focused in the single, darkly paneled, increasingly claustrophobic room. As the plot develops throughout the evening, the single setting intensifies the suspense and fear that the audience shares with the panicked Bella. “Gaslight” sconces on the wall further enhance the atmosphere and admirably serve the plot.

Mr. Sandberg has directed with skill and careful attention to detail. The action, even the rather long first-act exposition and set-up, moves swiftly, drawing the audience into this eerie world of intrigue and drama. The performers are well rehearsed and communicate the complexities of this tale with clarity and conviction. Ben Schaffer’s expert technical direction and period costuming by Julia Bumke and Ms. Sibert are also on-target and effective.

In commenting on Gaslight, Mr. Hamilton, who wrote several popular psychological dramas and novels in the first half of the twentieth century, once remarked, “It has a sort of genuineness in its very bogusness — it is sincere good fun theater.” Princeton Summer Theater makes the most here of Mr. Hamilton’s fascination with a rich psychological struggle and his fine sensitivity to the playwright’s art of keeping audiences on the edges of their seats.

May 16, 2012

PLAYWRIGHT IN DISTRESS: Stranded with two abandoned children (Hope Springer, left, and Matthew Kuenne) in a strange house and a hostile environment, Mundie (Paul Gross) tries to make progress on his new screenplay in the world premiere of John Guare’s “Are You There, McPhee?” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 3. (Photo by Michal Daniel)

At a New York City party the guests are telling stories in the opening scene of John Guare’s new play Are You There, McPhee? at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Edmund “Mundie” Gowery, a playwright, urges the group to gather round for his “horror story” of abandoned children, a dead mother, a porn ring, at least two sea monsters (11-pound lobsters) and Walt Disney. Mundie’s story, which he both narrates and re-lives, takes him from the present back to 1975, summer of “Jaws” (blockbuster movie and book), as he, at the age of 35, becomes embroiled in a tangled series of troubling, life-defining incidents — alternately absurd, horrific, and romantic — on the island of Nantucket.

In addition to the above, this two-and-three-quarter-hour surrealistic comedy includes dozens of different characters, all played by a versatile cast of 12; a slew of movie allusions and children’s literature references; repeated appearances by marionettes depicting the Argentine writer Borges, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Mundie himself; a diamond-stuffed lobster; a heart literally turning to gold; movie deals with Disney and Roman Polanski; a living room in the style of a Magritte painting, with a train coming out of the fireplace; literary references to Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Dr. Seuss, Primo Levi, and others; and frequent visitors from the past dredged up from Mundie’s creative memory.

This much plotting and literary, cinematic, artistic, and dramatic material can become daunting for audiences struggling just to keep track of what’s going on. The humor is clever, surprising and richly absurd. The distinguished cast is excellent, led by the dynamic, humorous, and appealing Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows) as Mundie. The talented Sam Buntrock (Travesties at McCarter last month and a widely acclaimed production of Sunday in the Park with George in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2008) directs with imagination and finesse, teaming up brilliantly again with set and costume designer David Farley (Travesties, Sunday in the Park).

Present here are qualities that have established Mr. Guare (House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) as one of the great American playwrights of the past 40 years: wildly imaginative plotting, detailed and sympathetic characterizations, hilarious comedy, striking and moving portrayals of deeply flawed men and women trying to make human connections, besieged in a forbidding environment. But Are You There, McPhee? needs an editor. Two-thirds of the current plot, fewer characters, and a running time much closer to two than three hours would suffice. The audience could catch its breath, take time to enjoy the humor rather than struggling constantly to follow the plot, and establish the kind of close ties with the main character that would draw us in to care more about his amusing, moving, sometimes ridiculous plight.

As Mundie’s story begins, the characters from his past appear and the layers of dark complexity accumulate. Lighting by Ken Billington and set shifts assist in transporting Mundie and the audience back to 1975. Mundie, who owns a Nantucket rental house he has never seen, receives an alarming phone call from the Nantucket police. They have arrested his tenants for running a child pornography ring. With Mundie’s first love interest departing for Buenos Aires with her husband, Mundie’s lawyer, and his second girlfriend demanding Mundie’s presence at a social event that evening, Mundie plans to fly to Nantucket for the day.

The literary background develops. Mundie reads Borges stories on the plane, and the famous writer appears in the form of a life-sized puppet to offer words of wisdom. Everybody else seems to be reading Jaws or going to the movie, as ominous “Jaws” sound effects complement the action here. Mundie’s Nantucket house had once been the home of a famous author of the “Elsie and Wally” books for children.

Soon after arriving in Nantucket, Mundie undergoes a police interrogation concerning his criminal tenants, and finds that everyone he meets recently acted in a local amateur production of his play, Internal Structure of Stars. They are all still furious that Mundie declined an invitation to attend a performance, but more than ready to offer dramatic samplings of their best lines.

Somehow Mundie encounters a lobster fisherman named McPhee. Some sort of alter ego for Mundie, he also had a part in the play, has a married girlfriend with the same name as Mundie’s and is also reading Borges. McPhee bestows upon him a large trash can and a cooler containing two huge lobsters.

And somehow McPhee directs Mundie to a house where Peter and Wendy are housesitting and taking care of a young boy, Poe, and girl, Lilac, and that’s where the plot really gets going, as we gradually find out details about the children’s mother, the daughter of the writer who lived in the house Mundie now owns, and the father, who directed Mundie’s play and aspires to greater achievements in Hollywood.

Mundie finds out he has a deadline to write a screenplay for Roman Polanski and looks forward to a rapid departure back to New York, but suddenly finds himself responsible for the two mischievous children who seem to have been abandoned by their parents and by Peter and Wendy.

This is just the first half, and this description barely scratches the surface. Is this Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw updated, in double time and on steroids? Much of the dialogue and action is very funny, and the excellent cast plays a colorful and entertaining array of characters: John Behlmann (McPhee), Gideon Banner (Peter), Jeremy Bobb (the lawyer), Molly Camp (Wendy), Patrick Carroll (the cop), Alicia Goranson (Mundie’s girlfriend), Matthew Kuenne and Hope Springer (the children), Jenn Lynn (daughter of the famous children’s book author), Danny Mastrogiorgio (the children’s father), and Luisa Strus (the children’s aunt) — all except for Mr. Gross’ Mundie and the children, taking on multiple additional challenging roles.

Just before intermission, after more than an hour and a half of intense exposition and plotting, Mundie looks up at the audience and tells us: “You need a break.” Despite the superb production and the wealth of great comedic and dramatic material, he’s right. Less would be more.

April 25, 2012
Theater Rev

“THIS IS JUST A TEST”: (left to right) Archie (Chris Doubet), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), and Chris (Jordan Adelson), with the proctor (Jake Robertson) in the background, endure the horrors of the SAT test, just one of the many ordeals they undergo in “Admissions: The Musical,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 28.

Admissions: The Musical

“Please somebody out there. Won’t you let us in?” Anybody who has participated recently in the college admissions rat race or who looks forward to that experience in the near future or who can remember college admissions traumas of long ago can relate to Admissions: The Musical, written, directed and performed by Princeton University undergraduates.

The college adviser interview, the application essay (“500 words or less”), the SAT tests, the strained relationships and shattered dreams of high school senior year, the alumni interview and the long-awaited decision letter — all come under the scrutiny of this often funny, sharply satiric, sometimes poignant musical comedy.

Sporadically brilliant, tuneful, and entertaining throughout, Admissions is the creation of experienced Princeton Triangle Show writers Dan Abromowitz, Clayton Raithel, and Nora Sullivan, with skillful, focused, purposeful direction by J.T. Glaze. A collaborative effort of Theatre Intime and the Princeton University Players, the show features a cast of five principals plus five versatile ensemble members, a pit orchestra of four under the direction of Kevin Laskey, and eleven different musical numbers in two acts spanning two hours, including an intermission.

The music — mostly rock or ballad numbers, with a traditional musical comedy quality — is appealing throughout, as the lyrics range from the mundane to the highly clever and witty. The tone of the show also ranges widely, from outrageously campy and absurd to serious, sentimental, and moving. The evening is enjoyable, and the accomplishments of these talented writers, performers, and producers are admirable — uneven but admirable.

From the first guidance counselor college meeting to the fateful opening of the college decision letter, the plot spans most of a year at Salmon P. Chase High School for five seniors: Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Chris (Jordan Adelson) and Archie (Chris Doubet). From “Senior year’s going to be amazing,” to “All joy has been crushed out of me,” this group lives through the ups and downs of the college application and admission process.

Chris, an athlete, and Jamie, an academic star, have been a couple since freshmen year. They can’t imagine being apart, and the fact that Chris will never get into the colleges Jamie is applying to brings their lives to a crisis point. Mr. Adelson and Ms. Cohen develop this relationship with intensity, credibility and humor, as the two teenagers struggle to stay together against the odds. They blend vocal strength with on-target characterizations in a couple of duets, “The Future Is Ours” in the first act (reprised with a twist in the second act) and “Reasons to Stay” in the second act.

Melanie, a singer and stressed-out music conservatory applicant, is suffering the pressures of preparing for auditions. Ms. Phillips’ Melanie, putting her life on hold, is sympathetic in her attempts to understand herself and her dreams in the face of the travails of college admissions. She sings a memorable counterpoint duet “Pass You By,” (“Don’t Let the Year Pass You By”) with Ted early in the evening, then comes to an epiphany near the end of the evening in a strong solo piece where she realizes, “That was my dream, but now it’s not.”

Mr. Stasiw’s Ted provides first-rate vocal skills, a charismatic presence, and a healthy contrasting perspective to the group, as he opts out of the admissions competition and decides to work and travel after high school.

The most tortured character of all, Archie is from a University of Pennsylvania family, but he doesn’t get in. As the first act ends, Mr. Doubet’s Archie tries to convince himself that “I’m Okay,” but with parents like his (Alexis Kleinman and Adam Mastroianni), hilariously over-the-top caricatures of the obsessive mother and father, his road to college will not be smooth.

In addition to the over-bearing parents, Mr. Mastroianni and Ms. Kleinman, along with Jake Robertson, Amy Solomon, and Chris Murphy take on a number of colorful roles, from guidance counselors, teachers, and high school students, to admissions officers and alumni interviewers. Mr. Mastroianni, Ms. Solomon, and Mr. Murphy even don the appropriate wigs and costumes to appear as Beethoven, Mozart, and Georges Bizet to participate in one of Melanie’s tortured dreams.

The ensemble is well rehearsed and directed, switching seamlessly among a variety of roles, and providing consistently focused, high-energy support for the five principals. Of the five leads, Mr. Stasiw and Mr. Adelson stand out in displaying vocal and dramatic talents as they create their vivid convincing characters.

Alex Pimentel’s flexible unit set, with blue and green blocks of various sizes on the main part of the stage and the four-piece orchestra pit above at upstage center, works efficiently and effectively in staging the numerous rapidly-moving scenes of the show in the close quarters of the Intime performance area. Stage right serves as Archie’s family dining room, and the far stage left area provides the forum for a series of humorous monologue parodies in which students deliver reflective personal excerpts from their college application essays.

Expert lighting by Alex Kasdin uses a rich variety of colors on the cyclorama wall to vary the mood and deftly delineates the shifts in scene and tone throughout the show.

The pit orchestra is excellent, and Mr. Glaze has directed the show with a sure hand, staging the action smoothly and clearly, balancing orchestra and voices and keeping the pace moving throughout the many different scenes from start to finish. Diction and projection are less than perfect, with lines, either sung or spoken, occasionally not clear. Choreography by Mr. Glaze and Alison Goldblatt is generally unremarkable, but complements the proceedings successfully.

As the 2012 college admissions extravaganza winds down, acceptance and rejection letters have been opened and final choices have been made or are imminent; College Admissions: the Musical offers a refreshingly light-hearted perspective on the whole ordeal. The satire is delightfully trenchant, the humor is mostly sharp and on target, the music is pleasing, and the PUP/Theatre Intime premiere production provides an enjoyable evening.

“Admissions” will run for one more weekend, April 26-28, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Saturday and at 8 and 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 27. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for information.

April 4, 2012

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?: Amanda (Maeli Goren) and Elyot (Evan Thompson) are back together again after marriage, divorce, rekindled relationship, and so many skirmishes in between, in Theatre Intime’s production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 7.

Love, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and repeat — Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece of witty repartee and stylish, high society British humor, seems a long way removed from life in the 21st century, but Private Lives, playing in an accomplished Theatre Intime production, retains its wise perspectives on the necessity and impossibility of love and its power to entertain contemporary audiences.

It’s the story of Elyot (Evan Thompson) and Amanda (Maeli Goren), who, after being divorced for five years, find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjoining rooms in the same French hotel. The first of three acts takes place on the hotel terrace, as the surprised Elyot and Amanda gradually discover each other’s presence, and quickly realize that they can’t live without each other. They decide to leave their new partners and escape to Paris. Victor (Tadesh Inagaki) and Sybil (Bits Sola), the abandoned spouses, join forces and follow Elyot and Amanda to Paris, where the tumultuously romantic rollercoaster ride of the last two acts ensues in Amanda’s apartment.

Shockingly risqué in its time, the plot, despite the cleverness and rich ironies of the opening scene, is paper thin, and the four main characters, though mostly realistic, are barely three-dimensional, with no backgrounds, employment, family, or interests outside the necessities of the romantic plot. But the central relationship is fascinatingly, frustratingly paradoxical in its volatility, its lust, its abuses — both physical and psychological — and its impossible inevitability.

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda tells her confused new husband in the first act. “It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

This feast of Cowardian wit is full of froth, but all that witty badinage, the sharing of a certain flippancy, the refusal — in striking contrast to the sober attitudes of their more mundane counterparts — to take life too seriously, constitutes the essence of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship. This is the lost art of conversation, and — save Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, and maybe Tom Stoppard — no one is more artful in this rarefied realm than Noel Coward (Hay Fever, 1925, Blithe Spirit, 1941). Coward wrote Private Lives in four days, then went on to play the role of Elyot, with Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, in subsequent successful London and New York runs in 1930-31. It has been revived in the West End and on Broadway many times since.

Mr. Thompson’s Elyot is suitably dashing, high-energy, and refined. He makes the ten-year character stretch with credibility and carries off the emotional requisites of the role — from suave sophistication to exasperation and hysteria to deep affection — with style and commitment.

Ms. Goren’s Amanda, “jagged with sophistication,” is a worthy counterpart, alternately alluring and attacking, romantic and rebellious. Both leads are thoroughly, convincingly in character, but suffer occasional diction lapses. The British-accented, rapid-fire wit occasionally speeds by too rapidly for comprehension, and it’s all too clever and entertaining to allow a single line to get lost.

Mr. Inagaki as the somewhat pompous, buttoned-up new husband to Amanda, and Ms. Sola as a whiny, needy young bride to Elyot are both excellent, on target in their characterizations, and clear and direct in word and action. They serve as effectively convincing, down-to-earth foils to the central duo. As Louise the French maid, Amy Gopinathan provides a timely, deftly humorous walk-on in the third act — a glimmer of perspective from the real world on these eccentric, upper-crust lovers.

Princeton University junior Savannah Hankinson has directed her young — all freshmen and sophomores — cast with intelligence and understanding. The action moves swiftly, with just one intermission, between acts one and two, and a short pause between acts two and three, and the total running time comes in at less than two hours. The staging, including some passionate brawling and physical combat to complement the verbal sparring, is clear and economical.

Michaela Karis’s simple, elegant, symmetrical set designs, enhanced by Laura Hildebrand’s nuanced lighting, effectively reflect the rarefied realm of the play. Sophie Brown’s costumes, a rich array of upscale outfits, including shimmering evening gowns for the ladies and formal wear for the gentlemen, enhance the creation of these characters and their world.

“Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other,” Amanda reflects in act one, and she and Elyot agree, “To hell with love,” just before deciding to run off to begin the cycle again. Noel Coward’s Private Lives paints an intriguing portrait of these desperately loving, desperately tortured fools for love, along with some of the cleverest romantic repartee ever written, all brought to life in this fine Theatre Intime production.

March 21, 2012

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties opened in London in 1974, came to the United States and won both Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play in 1976 and is currently at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a dazzling production directed by Sam Buntrock. It is a wildly extravagant intellectual feast.

“I want to marry the play of ideas to farce,” Mr. Stoppard explained. “Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity.”

It is Zurich in 1917, during the First World War, with Lenin preparing to return to Russia to lead the Russian revolution, James Joyce is in the process of writing Ulysses, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara is challenging the world of European art. The ideas come thick and fast here, though a constant barrage of puns, limericks, and word play, a smattering of song and dance and recurrent reminders of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest might, as Stoppard suggests, be smothering the seriousness of those ideas in chocolate sauce.

With so many historical, artistic, and literary allusions, this tour de force of hyperactive wit provides extraordinary riches for the mind. In this vein of Wildean farce and George Bernard Shaw’s comedies of manners and ideas, Mr. Stoppard has produced an impressive array of masterpieces over the past five decades, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) through The Real Thing(1982), Arcadia(1993), Coast of Utopia (2007) and many more. Nowhere, however, do the farce, allusions and intellectual ideas spin more wildly over the top than they do here in the pyrotechnics of Travesties.

Mr. Stoppard’s feat of relentless verbal dexterity, extraordinarily clever plotting to get Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara together through the reminiscences of a minor consular official, Henry Carr, who narrates the play, all in a spoof of The Importance of Being Earnest is surely a composition of genius. The McCarter production is worthy of this genius — also admirable, impressive and delightfully inventive in its staging and in the eight sterling, high-energy, high quality performances of its distinguished cast of eight.

Whether audiences will unreservedly enjoy this play is another question. Such rich fare can be overwhelming. A number of patrons left at intermission last Saturday night, slightly more than halfway through the three-hour show. The fast and furious pace of allusions, ideas, and farce are challenging to say the least. Theater-goers looking for traditional dramatic virtues of plot and depth of characterization will be disappointed. Some diners find both steak tartare and chocolate sauce, not to mention the combination, too much for the palate.

Travesties focuses on the character of Henry Carr (the redoubtable James Urbaniak), old man, sitting in his apartment, still in Zurich in 1974, and remembering, with questionable reliability, back to 1917: “Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all.”

The role is fabricated partly from history, partly from Mr. Stoppard’s fertile imagination. A Henry Carr did work as a consular official in Zurich and did in fact play the role of Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by The English Players of which Joyce was the business manager at the time. He and Joyce did clash over money matters surrounding the production and their dispute did end up in court.

As Mr. Stoppard wrote in the program notes for the original production, Travesties is a work of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history. Scenes which are self-evidently documentary mingle with others which are just as evidently fantastical. People who were hardly aware of each other’s existence are made to collide; real people and imaginary people are brought together without ceremony; and events which took place months, and even years, apart are presented as synchronous.”

Mr. Urbaniak embraces this character with panache, both the irascible, forgetful old man (“… you may or may not have noticed that I got my wires crossed a bit here and there, you know how it is when the old think-box gets stuck in a groove and before you know where you are you’ve jumped the points…”) and the urbane young swain.

He transitions seamlessly from the long monologues of an old man’s reminiscences (a la Krapp’s Last Tape) to the vibrant setting (a la The Importance of Being Earnest with an added dose of politics and aesthetics) of Zurich and Carr’s encounters — political, personal and romantic — with Joyce (Fred Arsenault), Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson), Lenin (Demosthenes Chrysan), Lenin’s wife Nadya (Lusia Strus), Carr’s eccentric butler Bennett (Everett Quinton), his sister Gwendolyn (Susannah Flood) and a young librarian, Cecily (Sara Topham), whom he falls in love with and later marries.

Mr. Coulson’s Tzara, with scissors in hand as he cuts out his words to scramble his poetic creations, is a fascinating, credible figure, vehemently defending his radical aesthetic theories, as he simultaneously pursues his romantic and personal ends.

Mr. Arsenault’s James Joyce, working on Ulysses, described here by Tzara as “derived from reference to Homer and the Dublin telephone book of 1904,” brings this unusual literary figure and his avid limerick-making to vivid, memorable life.

Mr. Chrysan’s Lenin and Ms. Strus’s Nadya are both formidable, authoritative characterizations, seen from a certain distance here — Mr. Carr had little or no actual interaction with the Russian revolutionary. Their dialogue and his speeches are almost entirely taken from historical documents.

Ms. Flood’s Gwendolyn and Ms. Topham’s Cecily both perform admirably in their embracing of the wild (and Wilde) world of this play and in encountering, with flair and poise, the erratic male characters who surround them. Ms. Topham is particularly strong, articulate, and striking throughout, as librarian, Leninist, and romantic interest, then wife, to Carr.

The incomparable Everett Quinton contributes a delightfully bizarre performance as Carr’s edgy, class conscious butler Bennett.

Production values here are of extraordinarily high quality. David Farley’s breathtaking set creates the huge shelves, dark wood paneling, and even a winding staircase between levels of the realistic Zurich library, then transforms so swiftly and effectively to Henry Carr’s small apartment, with clear, specific distinctions between 1917 and 1974 versions.

Mr. Farley’s colorfully fashionable costumes, historically specific and expressive for the period and the particular characters, along with David Weiner’s dramatic, varied, and nuanced lighting, all provide firm grounding and clarification in the creation of the worlds of this play. The renowned David Shire has composed the appropriate, appealing music for the production.

Yes, some knowledge of Europe during World War I, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Joyce, Tzara, and artistic movements of the early twentieth century is helpful here; but this luminous, dynamic cast, each character aflame with his or her particular passion, and the lucid, imaginative, intelligent direction of Mr. Buntrock (director of an award-winning revival of Sunday in the Park with George in London and New York, 2005-2008, and Take Flight at McCarter two years ago) keep the whirling words and actions moving along on track and in focus. This superb production delivers Mr. Stoppard’s Travesties — jam-packed with word-play, literary allusions, and historical references — with a dazzlingly light touch that assures entertainment even when confusion might defy comprehension.

February 29, 2012

On a night when Hollywood was honoring its own with the Oscars telecast, The Princeton Singers paid homage to its own past, as well as Princeton history, with a concert of late 19th and early 20th-century British and American choral music. As part of its continuing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, The Princeton Singers invited its audience to sit in the chancel of the Princeton University Chapel for a concert of some of the greatest hits of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, complementing the Art Museum’s exhibit of Princeton and the Gothic Revival, 1870-1930.

Princeton Singers conductor Steven Sametz placed the 18-member vocal ensemble under the foot of the chancel, facing the high altar. With conductor and singers so close together, it was easy to keep control over the sound, and an intimate concert environment was created for the audience. Throughout the evening, the homophonic music of late 19th century England was well-blended and diction came through well.

Sunday night’s concert was subtitled “Vivat Regina!” and the singers cut right to the chase, opening with C. Hubert H. Parry’s I Was Glad, sung at every royal coronation since 1902 and heard most recently in royal context as the bride’s processional at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This piece was designed to shake the rafters, with its top-volume organ registration and harmonic shifts, and the space of the University Chapel was a perfect venue for this lush music. The four-manual Aeolian Skinner Chapel organ also provided ample choices in registration and dynamics for this program. Parry created his setting for the traditional British choir of men and boys, whose laser sound would cut through Gothic walls and organ registration, but the Princeton Singers sopranos had an equally pure sound in the cozy setting.

All the works chosen for Sunday evening’s program showed a full clean sound with explicit diction. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Wash Me Thoroughly in particular was sung with a flowing choral tone. Penitent in its simplicity, the Wesley anthem demonstrated especially well-blended men’s sections while the sopranos topped off the sound like icing.

Dr. Sametz contrasted these chordal anthems with the more jarring style of Charles Ives to show how the British Anglican revival was assimilated into American music. Both “General Booth Enters into Heaven” and the closing Psalm 90 of Charles Ives were percussive in vocal style. For the General Booth anthem, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus outside of the chancel, leaving bass soloist William Walker close to the audience. It would have been easy to hear Mr. Walker from anywhere in the hall, and both choir and soloist conveyed the musical drama well, accompanied in the tricky piano part by Akiko Hosaki. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 was smooth and sustained, punctuated by bells played by members of the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s Ringers. The Singers well maintained the long choral stream of this piece, while soloists tenor Peter De Mets and soprano Martha Ainsworth carried well in the space. Ms. Ainsworth was appropriately restrained in a complex vocal line which left little room for overly-Romantic singing. Dr. Sametz intermingled the choral pieces on the program with organ works played by Timothy Harrell. In both the Edward Elgar and Horatio Parker works, Mr. Harrell was able to take full advantage of the wide range of dynamics and registration available from the instrument.

Princeton Singers concerts are often mini-courses in music history, and Sunday night’s performance was no exception. The actual museum exhibit may have been nearby, but the gothic structure of the University Chapel provided plenty of atmosphere to transport the audience to an earlier era and give them some new musical insight to take home.